A few years ago, I served as a referee for the National Science Foundation, reading and evaluating grant proposals, and hopefully, being fair to the hopeful applicants. Once I had submitted my preliminary report, I traveled to Washington DC for a final meeting with other referees for that round of funding; we met over two days to classify the proposals into three categories that read something like ‘Funding Certain’ ‘Undecided’ and finally, ‘Reject.’ Unsurprisingly, our discussions were quite vigorous with frequent disagreements, and sometimes contention, on display. During one of these disputes, after I had finished stating why I thought a proposal to fund a mentoring workshop for junior faculty didn’t look sufficiently well put-together, articulated, or planned, a fellow referee, a professor from a private university, one clearly committed to getting the proposal through and over the finish line, delved into the ad-hominem during his attempted refutation, concluding with, ‘Let me tell you something pal, you’ve led a sheltered life!’
Before I could respond, another member of the panel correctly pointed out the personally offensive nature of that sort of remark, called for calm, and our deliberations continued. The proposal was eventually funded.
I was seething though and continued to for a long while. (As the writing of this post shows, perhaps I never stopped.) The funding of the proposal wasn’t what had upset me. Rather, I had not had a chance to say what I wanted in response, which in unvarnished form would have gone something like this:
I’ve led a sheltered life? Excuse me? I left home twenty years ago and came to this country as an immigrant, finished ten years of graduate school with inconsistent funding, sometimes working on the side to make ends meet; I studied in one of America’s worst inner cities; I teach in a public university; and you, a man who enjoys the privilege of his race and teaches in a private university, you’re telling me I’ve led a sheltered life. Why don’t you–pardon my French–go take a flying fuck at the moon?
And then, I would have dramatically pushed my chair back, and walked out of the conference room.
In my dreams.
What is it about the missed rejoinder, the missed opportunity for the perfect comeback, that galls us so? Why do the burrs left under our saddles by moments like that continue to aggravate us in particularly and peculiarly painful ways? I don’t think any great rhetorical point was scored by my opponent; I wasn’t humiliated; I wasn’t refuted; the pompous twit did get reprimanded in a fashion; and perhaps anyone with a modicum of intelligence in that room saw that his remark was uncalled for and ridiculous. (No one, however, came up to me after the meeting to say as much.)
The problem, I suppose, is that we carry around too many memories like these; life throws us into close proximity, too often for our comfort, into the company of those that are quick with the personally hurtful quip. The man suggesting I had lived a ‘sheltered life’ had somehow found, unerringly, the one assessment of me that would cut deep. And the only way we know of fighting back at that moment is to retaliate in kind. When that opportunity is denied, perhaps because we weren’t quick enough on the draw, perhaps because peacekeepers step in, we are denied our moment of release. And forgiving and forgetting and moving on has never been easy.