Guidelines for respectful discussion

David Chalmers has put together a wonderful list of guidelines for respectful philosophical discussion. It’s focussed on in-person discussion, e.g. in seminars. But a lot of it carries over very well to the internet– and, I think, would vastly improve the blogosphere if widely followed. For example…

Don’t present objections as flat dismissals (leave open the possibility that there’s a response).

If you find yourself thinking that the project is worthless, think twice before asking your question.

Object to theses, don’t object to people.

I would add, thinking especially but not exclusively of the internet:

Don’t be dismissive of entire sub disciplines or approaches.

Do not insult people or approaches.

Be mindful of power imbalances, including informal ones.

22 thoughts on “Guidelines for respectful discussion

  1. Can we have a list of the topics/positions which constitute exceptions to this rule? For example, the kind of topics/positions which merit the following response: “Shame on X. This post is truly disgusting.”

  2. I’m pretty skeptical about whether this would improve the blogosphere unless there were extremely high levels of compliance, and even there, there are issues. I sorta tried to enact a lot of this (albeit inconsistently) on Lawyers Guns and Money. What I found is that the people who were generally in charity with me noted my civility and admired it. People who were not, didn’t at all. If people want to be hostile they will. Similarly, there’s enough faux charity and civility (and the charge of fauxness is so easy to make), that I think it’s sorta improbable that good outcomes will occur.

    I still find it useful for myself, so I can still recommend it. It changes the set of people who like and respect me and the reasons why, to some extent.

  3. There’s absolutely no mention in the guidelines, though, of gender, race, class, sexual-orientation, etc; it completely fails to address the most glaring ways in which philosophical discussion is disastrously uninclusive. Unless it’s to be just a helpful guide to how white men can talk politely among themselves, there needs to be a significant focus on the real problems with discussion in our discipline.

  4. I do think these can be seen as quite constructive for inclusive discussion. Being *generally* polite, and feeling obliged to be so, may be a barrier to biased expressions. If I have a habit of interrupting people and my implicit biases make my doing so more likely and frequent where speakers are from marginalized populations, adopting the rule of *never* interrupting will help. It won’t fix bias, but it saves others from receiving my expressions of it.

  5. Thanks, Monique! As I say in the preamble, this is a highly tentative work in progress and suggestions are welcome (see also norm II.1). It would be great to get specific suggestions about useful norms involving gender, race, class, sexual orientation, disability, and so on.

  6. I get that comment #1 is obviously bait, but here’s what’s going on: some topics and discussions are themselves perpetuating and participating in oppression, and that’s *not* okay. That needs to be confronted. And doing so is not “uncivil” or “disrespectful.” Responding to oppression in that way is a perfectly appropriate response.

    For example, say someone was giving a talk and wanted to give an inflammatory example just because–it’s not integrally related to their point, but they’re just a jerk. Should we suffer that in silence? What if their saying that perpetuates and participates in harassment, discrimination, or oppression? Telling someone that their example is disgusting is a reasonable thing to say.

  7. Best blog discussions I’ve seen are where participants stick well to Gricean maxims. No need to reinvent the wheel.

  8. Thanks, David! I really appreciate your openness to developing the guidelines. This isn’t something I have much expertise in, though, and unfortunately I’m just too swamped with adjuncting and dissertating to really research it properly. But I’d think that it would help to use some form of the Step Up/Step Back approach, which has been suggested in part already, vis-à-vis famous faculty giving way to others. (Some initial googling produced this,, though it’s not specifically geared toward academia.)

    A crucial element is really that audience members are aware of ways in which they are variously privileged, though achieving that generally in the discipline is rather beyond the scope of the guidelines. In lieu of that kind of broader understanding, I’d think that the only real alternative is for the chair to make sure that they have substantively educated themselves on this, and that cognizance of the contextual power dynamics (along the various relevant lines—gender, race, class, gender-identity, ability, and so on), and actively managing them, is something they genuinely take seriously in their chairing.

    Another important thing, I think, is for the chair to make explicit at the start the sorts of hidden, assumed norms that may be taken for granted in different particular settings but may not be obvious or familiar to everyone. (Class and cultural norms may be particularly relevant here.)

    There are also a lot of very subtle cues that can signal to people whether their participation is welcomed and accepted or not. Many philosophers tend toward having quite a low level of awareness of and facility with such nuanced social cues and thereby implicitly dissuade those who are already hesitant, and likely sensitive to any apparent signs of making a misstep, from participating.

    I think particularly significant point is that, to genuinely include those more marginalized it’s not sufficient merely to give them equal opportunity to take part; there need to be active steps taken to achieve this, since those that haven’t actually left philosophy are likely to have been, in effect, taught not to participate—because their doing so has typically resulted in their being ignored, talked over, condescended to, etc. Such steps could include the chair asking, beforehand, some of the more illustrious members of the audience individually to engage people near them who typically aren’t heard and encourage their participation.

    All this said, I think that the factors dissuading certain participants are ones that run very deep in our discipline and, while I think my suggestions here may be reasonably useful, commonsense ones, facilitators experienced in dealing with these sorts of issues would have a far better idea of just what would make the most difference and how best to implement such strategies in the specific context of philosophy.

    (Re. disability—I noticed the term “dumb” in the guidelines, which is a rather ableist term. Possible alternatives could be, “overly obvious”, “basic”, “perhaps obviously wrong”, or the like.)

    Thanks again for your work on this! I think it’s a valuable project.

  9. Rachel writes that “some topics and discussions are themselves perpetuating and participating in oppression,” and do not therefore merit rational engagement. Two questions:
    1. How do you know what these topics and discussions are?
    2. Can two rational agents disagree about whether a given topic or discussion is perpetuating and participating in oppression?

  10. 1. Because oppressed people say so, and I trust their testimony and epistemic authority.
    2. Yes and no. They can be rational, but one may still be wrong. I take feminist standpoint epistemology seriously. One’s social location may make it difficult to come to know something, even if they’re being “rational.” This is why extra weight should be given to the testimonial claims of people in the oppressed groups.

    Now you’ll say that you’re a member of one or more of those groups. Granted! But your experience isn’t everyone’s. And if you don’t experience oppression by the discussion of a particular topic, then awesome! Yay you! But others do. I’m more focused on them.

  11. “Object to theses, don’t object to people”
    I’d like to propose one related to this: don’t treat criticism of your thesis as though it was an attack on yourself.
    Though that kind of loops back around, since I have definitely seen people claim to be only criticizing ideas when they really are insulting people.

  12. Rachel, thanks for the reply. What I still find unsatisfying is that, in the case of (1), it often happens that the epistemic testimony of the oppressed will not be uniform. And there must be some way of recognizing legitimate disagreement in such cases. I am not sure your position allows for this.

    In the case of (2), I of course admit that one can be rational and still be wrong. [Comments deleted because they looked likely to turn into a heated discussion of a different blogpost on a different blog. Please let’s not go there.]

  13. Part of my last comment was deleted. Let me rephrase the question and try again:

    With respect to (2), if it is true that people can be rational and yet wrong, then is it still true that appropriate responses to rational-but-wrong people include name-calling (“jerk”) and shaming (“disgusting”)? [To the moderator: I am quoting Rachel’s earlier comment on this thread.]

  14. I didn’t name call anyone in particular. I was using a descriptor of someone in a thought experiment: someone who used a problematic example because they’re an insensitive jerk. I’m not referring to anyone in particular with this example. Don’t equate that with name calling.

    Yes, engaging in a post on, say, defending transmisogynistic language is disgusting and the author should be shamed. I don’t think there’s reasonable disagreement on that. Reasonable people may disagree, but the one position is just wrong. I’m perfectly comfortable with that being the case. And this recognizes that there are, for example, trans women who are perfectly fine with the use of “tranny.” That someone belongs to a particular group identity gives them epistemic authority, but what they say is only defeasibly justified.

    Shame is important in political and personal transformations. For a lovely discussion of this, see Alexis Shotwell’s ‘Knowing Otherwise.’

  15. And lest us not forget that part of the mechanism through which the Gendered Conference Campaign functions is through shaming: naming the conferences that have only men as invited speakers leaves them open for being shamed (and perhaps, one can hope, sometimes experiencing shame). But SHAME IS NOT AN END IN ITSELF; it’s a means to an end: personal and political transformation. I think one problem is that people think that those of us who call out bad behavior are engaging in shaming for the purpose of shaming. NOPE. We just want people to stop doing crappy things.

  16. Hi Rachel,

    Thanks for this. We agree that “defending transmisogynistic language is disgusting and the author should be shamed.” My problem, though, is that I can envision there being some ambiguity about whether a post, comment, or lecture does *in fact* defend transmisogynistic language. I can easily imagine situations in which people who are equally opposed to transmisogyny–or racism, sexism, etc.–disagree with each other about whether a given speech act defends one or the other of these positions.

    Consider Salaita’s tweets. I am opposed to anti-Semitism, and I do not think Salaita’s tweets were in the least anti-Semitic. Some of my friends, equally opposed to anti-Semitism, disagree with me. Now, they could shame me for even holding my position, but what would that achieve? I am much more likely to be moved if they show me, for example, that despite his intending otherwise, Salaita’s use of imagery in the tweets plays into anti-Semitic stereotypes, unintentionally lends justification to anti-Semitic critics of Israel, and so forth. And, indeed, they have so argued and so in part have moved me. (I am a staunch believer that intention is what matters in language, though, so even though I have come eventually to grant that, in some secondary sense, the tweets traffic in anti-Semitism, I still do not think that “anti-Semitic” is the proper descriptor to attach to them.)

    What would assuredly *not* move me would be my friends’ abandonment of rational engagement altogether. Indeed, it would make me think (1) that they were not really my friends after all, and (2) that they did not really have any good answer to my arguments.

    The world is a vale of tears, undoubtedly, but it is a very complex one, and oftentimes people sharing the same general values (c….z) will disagree about how or whether a particular (X) aligns with those values. There is no getting around this, it seems to me.

    Does this make any sense? Perhaps I have misconstrued the tenor of your original comment above, and we don’t disagree about disagreement after all. I am certainly open to correction on that score, as I’m getting things wrong all the time. (You can ask my partner if you don’t believe me!)

  17. Maybe I read all the rules at Chalmers’ site too fast (there were a lot of them) but I was surprised not to find something about charity. “If a speaker is known in advance to be neither stupid nor vile, don’t interpret what she says as if she were stupid or vile, if there’s another possible interpretation.” Following that rule would reduce pointless warfare at a lot of blogs.

  18. “I think one problem is that people think that those of us who call out bad behavior are engaging in shaming for the purpose of shaming. NOPE. We just want people to stop doing crappy things.”

    This seems to miss something. Some of you doing the calling out evidently assume that people you’re attempting to shame actually do or will share your judgments about “bad behavior” and “crappy things.” When others, after informed reflection, reject your judgment (rightly or wrongly) and are met publicly with responses such as “Your perspective is disgusting,” this looks far less like an attempt to shame than an attempt to ideologically intimidate via shouting down.

    Maybe the faint of heart will be intimidated by being shouted down in this manner. Fortunately, it seems doubtful that sincerely conscientious people typically will give up on pursuing social justice causes because of the excesses of some fellow travelers.

    More specifically, the tacit hitching of quite unrelated shaming wagons to the GCC is troubling. The GCC is focused on literal exclusion or absence, as compared to language that might lead sensitive people to feel marginalized or complicit in marginalization. The difference, for some of us, can be substantial and critical — and the failure to recognize it can even be offensive.

  19. See, you’ve assumed that one purpose of calling out is to shame. It’s not. Often that’s a by-product of the calling out process. Second, saying that a view or post is disgusting is not shouting down. It’s expressing an opinion, and a relatively quiet one, at that. There’s no attempt to intimidate. It’s calling to account: both the person being called out, and the person calling out. It’s standing up and being counted, for the latter: it’s saying that one isn’t going to suffer something in silence.

    Troubling for me is not recognizing that some mechanisms such as shame are, in some people’s view, quite purposefully attached to things like the GCC.

    Also, portraying those that take offence and become excluded through, for example, ableist, transmisogynistic, racist, etc language as being “sensitive” is itself offensive. It’s dismissive and doesn’t treat the feeling and being excluded as sufficiently real and justified.

  20. Much more importantly: those calling out (if they’re doing things right, I think), don’t need to think that the person being called out will recognize their behaviour as problematic. That’s a rather behaviourist (in a sense) way of thinking about things: the only reason to call out is to change someone’s behaviour. But I reject that view of calling out. Sometimes, calling out is an act of solidarity, irrespective of whether the person being called out will recognize their behaviour as problematic, whether they’ll feel shame, and whether they’ll subsequently change their behaviour. My calling out the ableist blog post as disgusting was one of these acts of solidarity. I didn’t expect the author to be swayed by my doing so, and that wasn’t the purpose.

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