The early Chinese philosopher Xunzi remarks on the power of social environments to influence the attitudes we broadly hold toward others and toward ourselves. He importantly acknowledges that these influences often transpire below conscious awareness, our experiences working on us without our knowledge. He evocatively characterizes social atmospheres in terms of what one “rubs up against,” the tactile metaphor suggesting that our environments, when flourishing, can register like silk on skin, such that our interactions are smooth and pleasing, fostering companionship and fellow feeling. In the alternative, they can, like sandpaper, abrade, wearing away at us incrementally and rendering it tempting to become misanthropic, to eschew participation with others in favor of the protections afforded by solitude, or, worse, to become coarse ourselves, accommodating our environment by mirroring it in our own manner.
Our profession, I often think, favors sandpaper. It can create climates in which being in the company of others, whether in person or online, erodes confidence that others can be well-meaning, can cooperate toward shared ends, or that we are worth more than whatever fleeting measures of status we manage to secure. And I think the effects of this steal upon us slowly. The skin gradually toughens and one can begin to assume and replicate the feel of what one encounters.
In my own experience this was brought home when I was in graduate school and found myself at a bar with non-philosopher friends debating a philosophical issue. I cannot remember now what the issue was, but what stuck with me was how my most pugilistic friend reveled in my participation in this conversation, the way in which I “slayed” someone who disagreed with me. He noted approvingly that graduate school had turned me into “someone who brings a gun to a knife fight.” I was dismayed by this and remain so, and have since tried (with uneven success) to avoid this.
I have not been in the profession all that long, yet it does seem to me that the sandpaper has grown coarser as time has passed. Yes, I know that philosophers have throughout history found creative ways to insult their opponents. Likewise, I understand the hazards in administratively legislated civility (and, to be clear, my concern is with socially shared professional norms rather than enforced codes). But I cannot quite reconcile myself to thinking that philosophers calling each other names, employing scorn in place of argumentation, and, yes, even using vulgar language is the best we can do. I know we often alibi such modes by vaunting our “plain-speaking” ways and our freedom from the taboos and strictures that govern those less critical of staid polite convention. But polite speech can well be plain too, and efforts to claim we are socially subversive in our rudeness fall rather flat when you consider how tragicomically un-subversive the profession’s demographic profile is. Indeed, it sometimes feels as being polite is the most radical thing a philosopher can do.