Reflections on the Passing of Will Moore
When a prominent political scientist committed suicide yesterday, I was deeply struck by how much he was like not only me but most of the people in my professional circle.
Political scientists on my social media feeds were stunned and saddened yesterday by the passing of Will Moore, a prominent scholar of political violence, at his own hand.
While I was familiar with his work, mostly through his contributions to the Political Violence @ a Glance blog, I don’t recall ever having met him. Some fine tributes have been written by Steve Saideman; Phil Schrodt; Erica Chenoweth, Barbara Walter, and Joseph Young (collectively); and Joseph Young (individually). [Christian Davenport added another excellent piece after this post went to “press.”] They paint the picture of a giving human being who made others’ lives better and seemingly had much to live for.
Alas, he did not agree.
Reading his farewell note yesterday, I was deeply struck by how much he was like not only me but most of the people in my professional circle:
I didn’t “fit” in society. That isn’t a problem of society. Setting aside moments of petulance, I viewed it as a plain fact. There it was. What to do about it? Ask society to adapt to me? Hah!
Being a misfit manifested itself in two broad ways over the course of my life: (1) far too often I angered, insulted, offended and otherwise upset people, without expecting or intending to, and (2) I rarely felt that I was successful explaining my ideas, perceptions, understandings to others.
But the real mysteries involved interactions outside of the formal classroom. Why weren’t my classmates interested in the things I wanted to talk about? Why did they want to talk about things that I found inane and uninteresting?
I would figure out in my late 40s that I am borderline autistic. Of course, in the late ’60s and early ’70s that wasn’t meaningful. Had my parents or teachers known, there wouldn’t have been any useful resources for them to have done anything with the knowledge.
On Briggs-Meyer tests I score either INTJ or ENTJ, depending upon how I answer several questions: in a large group where I have no (leadership) role I am introverted. Hand me a (leadership) role and the size of the group becomes irrelevant: I become extroverted. In addition, as I become comfortable from repeated interaction in a group I switch from introverted to extroverted (primarily by filling leadership voids).
Both types are apparently unusual, each estimated to comprise around 2% of the population. So, borderline autistic and I/ENTJ? Yup: Misfit.
I had a relatively high tolerance for conflict. I did not enjoy it: I found social conflict very stressful. But I was willing to do it, especially in defense of those I felt were not in a good position to respond for themselves. So there were numerous times when I angered, upset or offended people and I knew full well that my behavior / comments would do so.
But I was often surprised when someone, or a group of people, responded to me with anger, etc. Over the years I came to understand myself as adopting a tone that has been described to me by various women in my life as “that tone,” “obnoxious” or “condescending.”
Sometimes I recognized what they were referring to. But, and this is the difficult part, I very frequently did not. Indeed, my ex-wife had to put up with more than a decade of me responding very defensively when she would make that observation.
While INTJ’s might be 2% of the society as a whole, we’re almost certainly the modal personality type in academia—with ENTJ’s likely making up the lion’s share of the remainder. That makes sense: the ability to be fascinated by minutia is a prerequisite to scholarship and damn near useless almost everywhere else.
Judging by the date of his undergraduate degree, I’m roughly four years younger than Will and similarly don’t recall much discussion of Asperberger’s or the autism spectrum in my youth, but I certainly exhibit many of the same attributes. While I’m skeptical of online quizzes for medical diagnosis, he scored a 34 on one autism quotient test; I scored a 35. (The results may not be directly comparable since automatic scoring is currently disabled and the manual scoring assigns the same values to definitely agree/disagree and slightly agree/disagree, which would presumably not be the case with the automatic scoring.) While I’m something of an outlier in this regard even in academic circles, there are a lot of us.
And, yes, the combination of autism-like-tendencies and INTJ personality type is socially awkward. Introverts, by definition, find human interaction stressful and draining. We can certainly be gregarious when called for—my students are always surprised when I tell them that I’m an introvert*–but it’s exhausting, meaning we tend to need a lot of time to ourselves. Adding in the additional challenge of being bad at picking up emotional feedback that most people do instinctively is, well, unhelpful.
Despite these commonalities—and being markedly less successful in the profession than Will—I’ve never given serious thought to “punching out.”
And so the simple way to say it is this: I was done. I was tired of fighting to try to share my experiences, ideas, and views. Large portions of my conversations with most everyone contained frustration where I let things go that bug me.
Perhaps that is true for most people. Perhaps it is part of the human condition. But I had enough and just wasn’t up for the continued effort.
And I was tired of pissing people off, especially when I did not expect to or mean to.
Most of my time is spent “try[ing] to share my experiences, ideas, and views” with others, whether students or readers of my various published work, blog posts, tweets, and the like. While I’ve gotten better at avoiding it, I certainly continue to piss people off, often without any sense that I’m doing so. While it continues to frustrate, I guess I’ve just accepted it a part of the enterprise.
Why not do the things I love? For example, I loved novels, (live and recorded) music, plays, movies, and films. I enjoyed watching ball sports on tv. I loved being out in nature, on a trail or off.
Over the past few years I’ve tried to do that, and while my enthusiasm for those things did not wane, they share something in common: they are consumption. And for some unknown, damnable reason, I could only do so much consumption. Just doing things I enjoyed consuming was a tried and true path to depression for me. To feel good about myself-to be able to look myself in the mirror-I needed to produce.
I recognize much of this in both myself and colleagues. The nature of academia—and of the “life of the mind” in general—is that failure is a constant companion. For all but the top graduates of the top schools, finding a job means applying for hundreds of positions in hopes of being selected to interview for two or three. Those seeking to publish in peer-reviewed journals, especially, face constant rejection; it’s simply a normal part of the process even for the most accomplished and productive scholars.
More broadly, there’s always more work one should have done, so satisfaction seldom lasts long. I likely have more unread books in my personal library than I will ever get to and will add another couple dozen volumes to the pile before the year is up. And my writing productivity has declined considerably of late, which is a constant source of anguish.
Thankfully, while I find this depressing, I don’t exhibit the more severe signs of depression. I’m more irritable than most and haven’t regularly slept well in years, but that’s likely as much a function of getting older and having small children as anything else.
But maybe all of the above is window dressing. As much as I recognize myself in the early part of Will’s parting post, this is alien to me:
For those of you who are aggrieved, upset, etc. with my death, please, to the extent you are able, try not to imagine that I viewed my life as miserable, unhappy, or anything of the sort. Further, please don’t imagine that I went into some (slow or rapid) decline. That narrative may describe well the lives of many who chose suicide. But that was not how I understood my own life and choice.
I first began to weigh the costs and benefits to taking my life when I was a teenager (I suspect, roughly from the time I realized that I could). Suicide is, of course, a taboo. And the first rule of taboos is: don’t discuss the taboo! The second rule is: if you must discuss the taboo, express your opposition and then close the discussion.
So I learned early on not to discuss it.
When I got married I mostly stopped thinking about the suicide option. When we had children I stopped completely. It literally just wasn’t an option to me.
And its important to explain that I experienced these as exogenous choices. I don’t know whether you feel you are able to choose the thoughts that enter your mind, but aside from changing the stimuli (e.g., reading a book, watching a film, engaging in conversation), I did not exercise much control over the thoughts that entered my mind when I was not actively engaged in something. My mind generated thoughts, seemingly independent of my will.
So, until my children became adults, the suicide option just disappeared. I was thus surprised when, after my kids became adults, it returned. But it did.
When I left my ex-wife I was well aware that my time on the planet might be shorter than my body’s life expectancy. I knew I didn’t want to stay in the marriage, but I was far from confident that I would want to live a solitary life. And so it has come to pass
Aside from the bit about not being able to control the thoughts which enter my mind—which is certainly familiar and, indeed, increasingly the case—the rest is just foreign to me. And my mind never wanders to suicide.
It speaks well of Will that, having assumed the responsibility for the lives of children, he put their needs over his own. It’s sad, indeed, that he didn’t think they still needed him now that they’re grown. I don’t say that in a judgment of his choice. Despite our many similarities, I can’t truly fathom the mental state that even makes it an option or the burden that imposes. Still, his loss will be grieved by the many lives he’s touched.
As always in these tragic cases, it’s worth reminding ourselves to be on the lookout for signs of depression in our friends and family. There’s a whole array of professionals who can help.
*We teach a three-week introductory course here that includes a seminar using the Keirsey temperament sorter, which creates four macro personality types out of the sixteen Myers-Briggs categories. While I usually test INTJ, I sometimes test ISTJ; depending on the result, I’m either a Rational or a Guardian on the Keirsey chart. Despite serious dispute over the validity of these tests in the psychology profession, it’s uncannily accurate in the case of an academic who’s a former Army officer.