The Missed Rejoinder: Memorable For All The Wrong Reasons

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.

7 thoughts on “The Missed Rejoinder: Memorable For All The Wrong Reasons

  1. Ad hominem assault is, alas, very much the norm in New Zealand academia on my experience. It’s why I never sought a career in the field. The sad part is that the abuse followed me into the public world where I write history, in the form of personal worth denials masquerading as reviews. The point being that outside the university context such conduct becomes an attack on my repute and income in public. This from people whose equivalent prosperity is a function of their employment at my expense as taxpayer. They don’t see it that way of course. Sigh.

  2. I do think you live a sheltered life. If you lived in a third world country and in that environment tried to push Science Education, no less, you would have received so many of those “personally hurtful quips”, coming from all sides, that probably you would not remember any one as deserving to be specially noted.

    One certainly does not grow over such experiences, but after so many of them, one tends to think it is one’s personal failure to keep on seething at each and every occurrence.

  3. Marcelo,
    Ha! Living in a first-world country does not protect you from ‘personally hurtful quips’! Third-world countries don’t have a monopoly on verbal assault. Try moving out here and see for yourself.

    And yes, personal growth requires we move on – but that is an ongoing process, not something we ever fully master in our lives. If we did, we’d be saints, not regular humans.

    1. Hi Samir.

      Indeed. But at least someone stood up to point that a personal attack was kind-of sort-of out of bounds, while in many places it would have been considered business as usual.

      Abraços, Marcelo

      1. Marcelo,

        There is an interesting discussion to be had here about cultural differences in the kinds of conversational parameters followed – I’ll blog on that someday (soon, I hope).

        Cheers, Samir

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