‘All happy families are alike—right?—but each unhappy family—right?—is unalike, or unhappy—sorry—in its own way.” This is how I remember hearing the opening to Anna Karenina for the first time: punctuated with what I thought then was a curious verbal tic unique to the speaker, a professor of English, at the beginning of the first course I tried to take during my first attempt at college, before I stopped going to class and promptly flunked out.

I’m tempted to blame this outcome on my encounter with the barrage of “right?” that had been spewed at me by this sputtering professor, but the truth is that my temperament has always gotten me in trouble. I couldn’t make it through a whole lecture; I fabricated a need to pee, or feigned illness; often, on the verge of hyperventilating, the room swirling around me, I’d simply walk out mid-class—when I bothered to show up at all. I hated school, but I loved literature. It was in part this love that made me shun school: My professors hated literature and seemed to regard any actual passion for their subject matter with suspicion or even disdain.

 It wasn’t until many years later—after working various jobs and selling weed, then getting in trouble and seeing no other option for my immediate future—that I’d again encounter this unseemly habit of interspersing speech with “right?” every few words, and recognize the subtle coercion, the grating assault, entailed by it. In short, it wouldn’t be until I went back to college that I’d be made privy to one of the worst aspects of academia: professors talking. In our age of crowd-sourced feedback—which in higher ed takes the form of student evaluations, peer review, and more—professors, perhaps more than most, value consensus. They need it to publish, to get tenure, to measure whether or not they are doing a good job. They enforce conformity among themselves, and they willingly submit to the conformity pushed on them by others.

One way they do all of this is by continually asking “right?” as they speak, leaving no room to respond. Though “right?” is seemingly asked, it isn’t really a question, so the way it functions isn’t obvious. Jordan Peterson—notice the slight cringe when you read his name—likens academic speech patterns to a zebra’s stripes. The function of these isn’t to make the animals blend in with their environment—as with chameleons—but rather to make them blend in with each other, because herding together makes any individual zebra less vulnerable to attack. Academese serves a similar function. If everybody uses the same terms in the same way, spoken in the same tone, it signals group membership. “Fear not,” it says, “you are safe. We have read the same things, and we think the same way. I am one of you.”

A professor must spend his entire life trying to please others—first his own professors, then his doctoral adviser, then his tenure-review committee, then his scholarly audience. In doing so, the people-pleaser must differentiate himself—but not so much that he is driven out of the herd. In fact, he tries to differentiate himself just enough that others won’t think that he is their competition; in reality, his academic work is an attempt to fit in. Over the years, he loses himself. In this regard he becomes—it may be said without fear of overreach—less than human.

The influence of academic culture is evident in the way the term “contrarian” often gets used now as a slur. There is hardly anything worse than going against the consensus, whether intentionally or unintentionally. There are huge, looming forces that threaten the herd’s survival—capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, climate change (but in reality, their students and each other, ever eager to punish those who fall afoul of any piety)—so its members must stick together, presumably lest they get eaten by a capitalist lion or a racist crocodile.

My least favorite professor, who boasted during our first class about never having read Dostoevsky, assaulted us with “right?” like no other. It was as if he wasn’t communicating with us, but rather performing his tyrannical neurosis for himself. He said: “hegemonic, right?” and  “Walter Benjamin, right?” and “racialized—right?—capitalism” and “as a white cishet male, right?” and twitched like a child who had to pee but was trying to prove something by holding it.

I could tell by their expressionless doe eyes that none of the undergraduates knew what he was talking about, but many nodded their heads in a kind of trance, awkwardly performing a role they thought was expected of them—everyone afraid, everyone taking part in this strange ritual. If the students were afraid of not appearing as if they understood all that precipitated “right?”, the professor was even more afraid of not saying the right thing, so that instead of being taught in a classroom, we were all engaged in some sort of fear orgy, or fear orgy performance, wherein that which passed between us was not knowledge, but something much darker and more sinister.

The manner in which “right?” escapes quivering lips, in shaky tones, gives the impression of someone in a hostage video stammering through a written statement shortly before he’s going to get beheaded. In spaces in which weaponized ostracism is the primary tool through which power is exercised, the weasel-professor typifies the disposition of those who live in fear of always saying or doing the wrong thing. Perhaps “right?” is born of this fear.

As anyone who’s spent a minute on academic Twitter knows, professors often suffer from imposter syndrome—and are open about this condition. In the absence of the self-assured sense of authority that comes from competence, saying “right?” may be an attempt to assuage their insecurity, to overcompensate for the deep-set fear that their students don’t respect them. Thus, this single syllable contains a double motion, meant to convince the speaker himself that he is right, but also enjoin the students to assent to the precarious blathering. The professor may utter the first two letters—ri—in a confident tone, then finish it off, like a gulp—ght?—uncertainly, and vice versa. Sometimes it is sighed; sometimes it is blurted, like a cough. All of this ugliness is contained in the brief, second-long spasm: the quivering ridges of the eyes, the word descending down the throat and landing at the base of the neck as the tongue flicks against the upper teeth and speaks—“right?” If the professor is a prey animal from one vantage point, he is a predator from another: the student’s, whom the professor feasts upon with bloated delight.

This oscillation between insecurity and overcompensating certainty is a classic manifestation of pride. Orson Welles may as well have been describing academics when he said of Woody Allen, “He has the Chaplin Disease; that particular combination of arrogance and timidity sets my teeth on edge. Like all people with timid personalities his arrogance is unlimited. Anybody who speaks quietly and shrivels up in company is unbelievably arrogant. He acts shy, but he loves himself; a very tense situation.”

It is a tense situation indeed. If you’ve ever found yourself in a classroom or listening to a talk, while some stammerer keeps interjecting “right?” into their empty-headed argument, you may have found yourself wondering: Why does this narrow-eyed, tight-lipped bug need me to confirm every third word that I agree with him? Or perhaps, when you’ve encountered it, your cortisol spiked and, in a pre-language state, you simply experienced the assault as an embodied tedium—shoulders tensing, ears ringing. If this is the case, you aren’t alone. The agreeable “good students” are unable to grasp that “right?” is less a question than a thinly veiled threat, but those who still seek real education may be able to sense this truth in their annoyance and impotent rage. Here, the entire artifice of academia is exposed for what it is: incuriosity and consensus-forming disguised as a question, meant to manipulate, like wizardry.

“In the absence of truth … today’s professor settles for manipulative unanimity.”

Here is a particularly poignant example, transcribed verbatim from a short clip of Jessica Krug, the disgraced history professor and activist, discussing “cop-watching”:

Um, so here we are now with cameras, right? Um, so cop-watching is [a] constitutionally protected practice of monitoring and documenting police activity, that’s all it is, right? That’s you pulling out your phone when you see a stop that looks like it’s going sideways—right?—that’s livestreaming your uh, partner’s murder—right?—that’s all cop-watching. … And I realize now that I’m talking about this a little bit institutionally. How did I get into this? Um, I had no choice, really—right? … Some of my earliest memories in life are of police brutality, right?

Wrong, actually. Krug, it turned out, had lied for her entire career about being black. She was white. Her whole speech, like the public identity she had fabricated, was a sham.

In the absence of truth, or even well-reasoned thought, today’s professor settles for manipulative unanimity. He achieves this through catty tactics which at first seem innocuous, but are in reality a kind of weapon. Even if the speaker doesn’t think that’s what he is trying to accomplish—or think about his unbecoming vocal tic at all—we should be good contemporary thinkers and know that intent is not what counts. What matters is what’s actually there, in the language. Right? Moving forward, when we spot it in the wild, we should, like the lion does to the zebra, attack.

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