Mind Your Manners?

This is the inaugural post in what I hope will be a series of reflections and discussions of manners.  The format will depend on readers’ interests but the basic hope is to provide a forum for considering ways to understand and effectively respond to professional challenges linked to prosaic good manners.  There are of course a number of intriguing high theoretical issues attached to manners – e.g., whether and in what sense having good manners is morally important – but my interest is in the more immediately challenging practical side of things.  Subtle and not-so-subtle variations in how ordinary mannerly conventions are practiced can encode bias, for example.  It can be difficult to know how to respond (politely or not?) to an interlocutor who appears sexist.  And being well-mannered can, in the rough and tumble of some philosophical interactions, seem disadvantageous, the polite person appearing weak.  Most generally of all, my own sense is that philosophy, as it is too often practiced, can be quite rude.  Worse, it can cloak garden variety rudeness in the noble garments of “independence of mind” and freedom from the petty conventions by which only the unimaginative herd abide.  One trouble with this is that rudeness is rarely distributed equitably and its burdens may well fall heaviest on those already marginalized or underrepresented in the profession.  This at least seems a conclusion with some support in the testimonies on the “What is it Like” blog, where bias appears often to flower heavily fertilized by a willingness to be rude.  In my own professional life at least, I sometimes find myself torn between practicing what I would count the rude (but sometimes disturbingly professionally legitimating) conventions of the discipline and maintaining my own commitments to being well-mannered. The direction of these posts, then, is simply to invite consideration of such dilemmas and how to resolve them.  To submit queries, simply use the “Contact” tab!

10 thoughts on “Mind Your Manners?

  1. Love this idea! Agree that norms of engagement in philosophy can sometimes equate to just being rude in ways that are deeply problematic. Looking forward to hearing suggestions on how to navigate these situations…

  2. Sounds good – looking forward to more reflections! I’m interested to hear a bit more about the claim about manners ‘encoding bias’ (is the idea that sometimes manners involve ‘doing things according to the norms applicable here’, to exclusionary effect?). Thanks!

  3. Thanks, all! Stoat, I think this can be complicated. There are of course conventions that in themselves encode bias (e.g., opening doors for women, though I think this is passing out of common practice) but I had more in mind issues attaching to *how* conventions can be practiced in ways that stylistically inflect toward bias.

    I take being well-mannered as a rather robust idea that includes not simply abiding by etiquette rules, but succeeding in the communicative work at which such rules ostensibly aim (e.g., conveying respect). So micro-messaging can introduce bias into interactions even where a summary description of what is said or done would appear “perfectly polite.” Encounters that operate like this are in some ways the most maddening since they present the greatest challenge where one wants to identify (to others, but perhaps also oneself) what is off and off-putting.

    Another version of this is where a polite convention is followed but the convention is out of step with the situation or person at whom it is directed. E.g., my students tend to be quite polite, but they also tend to call me “Mrs. Manners” rather than using my professional title.

  4. Thanks Prof M! That distinction between conforming to manners and securing the goal at which manners aim really helps to get at the bad cases and good cases of manners I had in mind…
    Looking forward to thinking about this more!

  5. I’m reminded of a warning framed around addressing the dubious (or even egregious) actions/words of another; the warning stressed the importance of maintaining focus on “what they did” and avoiding veering into “what they are”.
    of course, said warning was likely based on a previously-established, more technical point that can be more thoroughly expressed, but i’m having trouble recalling even the source of the warning (it was a youtube channel, and the example was in the context of racism, though the larger point was directed more generally)…

  6. This is great! Politeness may deeply complicate our standards of reasoning. Informal logicians (Doug Walton and Trudy Govier) tend to assume it will keep social hostilities from affecting exchanges of reason.
    But Sylvia Burrow argues that politeness studies (the interdisciplinary field) suggests otherwise regarding adversarial contexts like the discipline of philosophy–http://ojs.uwindsor.ca/ojs/leddy/index.php/informal_logic/article/view/3033, and I build on her reasoning to argue that standards of politeness are a problem demanding attention informal logicians and argumentation theorists –http://ojs.uwindsor.ca/ojs/leddy/index.php/informal_logic/article/view/3895.

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