The Role (and Limits) of Civility

Yesterday morning, on the show Morning Joe, Chris Matthews started a heated exchange with RNC chairman Reince Pribus over whether Mitt Romney was using his own “race card” when he joked about his birth certificate.
Here’s the video of the exchange:

I recommend reading two brief commentaries on this event: Elon James White’s take at The Root and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take at The Atlantic. (Heck, I would recommend their commentaries for just about anything.)  White argues and Coates implies that even though Matthews was yelling, talking over Pribus, and cutting him off, his incivility was not really inappropriate here, and actually sorely needed.

In the comments on Coastes’ piece, I came across this exchange that connects Matthew’s outburst to the domain of academia:

I dunno. I exist in a world where the open expression of anger pretty much instantaneously disqualifies you from the discussion unless you’re very, very careful. If I’m in a debate with fellow faculty and I get angry, I’m done (I’ve actually thrashed a couple of colleagues in public debates specifically and knowingly because I held my cool and they lost it in front of everyone). If I get angry at a student, I lose the whole class. Now, I can rant about something independent of that, like injustice or discrimination and get away with it. But if I start yelling AT someone, I’ve generally lost the debate, at least in my world.



I see what you’re saying. But in the world Chris Matthews inhabits, there is little time for a calm, reasoned, thoughtful rebuttal to horsepucky.

I think some people that really need to hear what Matthews is saying–otherwise well-meaning people that are blind to racism unless it comes packaged in a white hood–may be turned off by his explosion, and that’s unfortunate. But I don’t think he was trying to persuade anybody to his point of view; I think he saw himself as getting to the truth, and calling out somebody who was lying to him.



Even if you don’t care about American politics, there are a lot of interesting things going on in the clip above.  Issues of anger, civility, silencing, moderating, calling out injustice, race, humor, and ignorance all come out in this five minute clip.   Even if the world of politics in the media is incredibly different than the world of academic philosophy, Matthews’ comportment is salient to some of our own concerns about the role (and possible limits) of civil discourse in academic discourse.
(As I like to remind myself: In the face of unreasonableness, responding irrationally is sometimes the reasonable thing to do.)

Lastly, let me lay my cards on the table: When I first watched this clip, I thought Matthews was wrong to be so abrasive and cut of Pribus and talk over him. But after thinking about it more at length today, I’m not so sure anymore.   I find myself wondering if it actually was healthier for the discussion as a whole (across the whole media) that Matthews relentlessly hammered home this point that Romney’s birth certificate joke is not race-neutral and it’s bs to insist it is.  This conclusion is making me wonder whether there might be limits to the appropriateness of certain aspects of academic discourse, such as the principle of charity, respect of past scholarship, and never insinuating that an argument is insincere.

8 thoughts on “The Role (and Limits) of Civility

  1. I think that the comment from Dex highlights one of the great and frustrating things about academic philosophy. In philosophy class, you’re expected to use logic and argumentation and reason to make your points, and these entail bracketing out your personal emotions and beliefs, because philosophy is supposed to be about Truth. However, this often means that the only perspective that is tolerated is the white male perspective, as this is the one that is taken to be the “neutral” perspective. I think that what makes Matthews’ outburst so great is that his passion shows how personal the politics is; people’s lives are at stake. Meanwhile, Priebus is still behaving like he is in philosophy class, because he doesn’t see how personal the politics is. (How many times did I hear, “Why are you being so angry at me?” in philosophy classes!) Having said that, I have long believed that one of the tragedies of modern academic philosophy has been the lack of practicality, or the lack of connecting what is taught in the lecture hall with how real people live out their lives! (In other words, we should be teaching less logic and more ethics.)

  2. I have two comments. First, I’m not so sure Priebus is behaving the way one would in philosophy class (or at least, not the way I would want my students to behave). He is, for example, reduced to calling names: “Garbage, garbage,” in response to Matthews. Second, it’s true that Matthews talks over Priebus, but he repeatedly raises the same incisive questions (e.g, “How is it a joke?”), and Priebus is simply unable to answer.

    Finally, the comment quoted from “Juniperno” in the original post trades on ableism with its use of the metaphor of “blindness to racism.” I wish we could just give up using references to impairments as metaphors for ignorance and incapacity.

  3. Who is that insists that disagreements must be calm, unemotional, not heated? Those are particular cultural norms; for other cultures, heated discussion is the norm. To me, Priebus comes across as smug and superior, even as he makes negative remarks (suggesting that Democrats always place the race card every time sometime makes a joke) and dodging Matthews’ point that Priebus has once again (falsely) cast Obama as a foreigner by saying that he takes his cues from Europe. I would not say that Priebus argues according to a philosoher’s ideal, although indeed the strategy seems quite familiar.

  4. I think at least one of the ideas in favor of calm discourse is that being truly interested in discussion requires a commitment to listen to one’s interlocutor. Interrupting them, shouting them down, impugning motives and the like suggests this commitment isn’t present.

    To evaluate what goes on in the clip requires speculation as to what each of the parties thinks they were doing. Maybe Mathews wasn’t interested in discourse. He perhaps just wanted to state his belief that Rommey’s joke was racist – in which case, there may be no commitment for him to listen. There may be politeness issues here too, such that one shouldn’t invite another to a discussion one isn’t really interested in having. Though, it’s likely Priebus wasn’t under any illusions.

    Of course, one isn’t obligated to have discussions with all who want them. Arguing with Holocaust deniers probably isn’t the best use of time. Honestly, the Romney joke seems to fall rather down the list of issues at stake in this election.

  5. Before Matthews begins to interrupt, Priebus: 1) makes scoffing faces, 2) makes a *very* problematic comment about the Dems not having a sense of humor and always playing the race card at any joke, 3) fails to answer Matthews’ question as to what the “joke” was, 4) makes the accusation that Obama is looking to Europe and then won’t own up to the fact that he is using the same “outsider” rhetoric that the birther joke did.

    I think that someone who does things like that has themselves shown that they are not interested in calm discourse or truth seeking and thus, that there is no point in trying to have rational discourse with them. They may be arguing calmly, but they are not arguing fairly. And sometimes that BS needs to be called out, and called out loudly.

  6. I know I’m a little late to this party, but I really want to support and promote this topic of conversation. It seems to me that our proliferation of applied ethical schools has a major gap when it comes to the applied ethics of reasoning, and that gap is illustrated beautifully in this example (and in the preceding comments!).

    Philosophers do indeed take it for granted (perhaps because we are taught to take it for granted) that “the principle of charity, respect of past scholarship,” and so on are to be maintained at all times and under all circumstances. Still, that has always seemed naive and even ignorant to me; I, for one, tend to side more with justanotherfemalephilosopher’s ideas about evaluating discourse in light of cultural norms and perhaps allowing oneself to be less than perfectly charitable, respectful, and so on. Not to attempt to hijack the blog or anything, but more posts on this subject would be greatly appreciated.

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