Academic life should be an agreeable pursuit, in which a community of scholars educate their students, and each other. Sometimes it fails to reach that desirable ideal, and becomes a stressful and argumentative trade, creating a poisonous atmosphere from which most recoil but none can really escape.
Why does this happen?
One reason may be that particular sorts of persons are drawn to academic life. The stereotype (which generally contains many of the most noticeable features of any human condition) is that of people who would otherwise be at a loss in ordinary life, too wrapped up in their own interests to attend to mundane matters, other-worldly, not commercially minded, somewhat indifferent to money and outward shows of status, apt to dream up impractical schemes, but generally pretty harmless. It seems more a prescription for a lazy, country club atmosphere than a recipe for conflict. On this evaluation, academics need protection, asylum and institutional support. They are people of the cloister. How on earth can these gentle dreamers ever generate fear and loathing?
One theory lies in their world view, and their politics. Usually, academics incline to the left of the political spectrum, whatever it may be called in the cultures in which they live. The cynical story is that at university everybody makes friends on the basis of sex, drugs and rock and roll, and students are not too bothered about politics till graduation day. Then the right turns to the Right, goes into business and makes money (and pays some taxes) while the left turns to the Left, goes into social service, and works for the government, which is supported by taxes. It is a deal, of sorts. Two very different world pictures find a way of co-existing, to use a communist notion. Even so, following the stereotype, it is the commercial Right who should be tearing each other limb from limb in the savage pursuit of profit, while the Left should cluster together in communal comradeship, toiling together to make the world a better place. Why should community oriented leftists descend into hating?
Perhaps the animus comes when academics identify an odd isolate Rightist who has failed to make the proper career decision, and has remained in academia. In intellectual terms, he is an ugly duckling, and needs to be evicted. It may be as simple as that. Hard to judge, from an historical point of view, whether the Left or the Right have piled up more corpses, but it could be a simple matter of solidarity, or even the tribalism of scholars which makes academics turn on some thinkers of which they disapprove. (On a more general note, if most academics are Left-inclined then this might affect their research results. It would only do so if their methods were weak. Otherwise it should have no effect).
Another theory is that the communitarian world is a sham because outside of a very few scholars with an independent income, academics must fight over a fixed pie of grant money. There is no way to get more other than to beg for more, and that is rarely forthcoming. According to this view the fundamental dependency of academic life is laid bare by the need for publications, grants awards and promotion. One goes into academic for some peaceful thinking, and ends up telling lies on a grant application out of sheer survival. Academics become reduced to prisoners of war fighting each other over scraps of food. It is dog eat dog, all over again. (One way out is to write a successful book which makes money in the real economy. Something like: “How to boost your IQ while dieting”). Absent a source of income, academics will be tempted to denigrate their rivals.
W.S.Sayre, a political scientist at Columbia University is credited with observing: "In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake." By way of corollary, he added: "That is why academic politics are so bitter."
Of course, academics can reply that nature and nurture; the education of children; differences between genetic groups; differences in income and savings; differences in health and lifespan; and different ways to levy taxes and confer benefits are not necessarily low stakes issues, but intensity of feeling often triumphs over the best available findings, and fear and loathing are the result.