Reflections on philosophical rudeness

Nomy Arpaly has recently initiated a really interesting discussion on this topic.  After an excellent discussion of the problems of philosophical rudeness (read it!), she ties the issue to gender.

I would like to add the following. I think the state of women in philosophy can be improved significantly simply through the elimination of rudeness in philosophical discourse. One can have many views about things we could or couldn’t do, should or shouldn’t do, to improve the state of women in philosophy, but before we settle those issues, why not start by doing what we already know that we have excellent reasons to do – utilitarian, Kantian, virtue-oriented, and commonsensical reasons, independent of any special feminist theory – and reduce our rudeness?

Here is how I think it will help. First, if everyone is rude, women are judged unfairly (as potential colleagues, for example) because rude women are treated more harshly than rude men, by everyone, due to implicit bias. Implicit bias is notoriously hard to change, but thankfully it is not as hard to change behavior – such as rudeness. I am not saying that we should not try to change implicit bias – of course we should – nor am I saying that changing behavior is easy (I have plenty of experience to the contrary), but you get my drift.

Second, in the actual world, polite women are also judged harshly when they respond to the rudeness of others. In a job interview, for example, a woman who faces a rude interviewer has the choice between responding assertively (and thus facing the notorious “shrill voice” bias) and responding gently. A woman who responds in a gentle, conciliatory manner to a rude interview question, or who looks too insecure and intimidated in response to the rude question, is often perceived by the some people in the room as not having enough to say. This whole painful catch-22 does not occur if the interviewer is not rude in the first place. Again, changing behavior is much easier than changing implicit bias.

Third, it has been said many times that women are put off by the idea of entering philosophy because girls are not taught to handle confrontational, adversarial situations, or situations where one’s abilities are judged harshly. Some think philosophy should change here – either through what I called “pacifism” earlier or through changing the way we evaluate people, or otherwise. Some, on the other hand, say that though the education of girls should change, philosophy shouldn’t. After all, girls and women play sports nowadays, and compete in athletics, and the ones who do most definitely don’t ask for the rules of rugby to be changed to make it kinder and gentler, or for boxing be made non-adversarial, or for the cruelty of publishing players’ stats to be stopped.

Me? All I want to do here is suggest that we try to eliminate what we already regard as foul play, what we already know we shouldn’t do but do anyway. It won’t solve everything, but if we reduce rudeness, I solemnly promise that more women will want to do philosophy. I hereby conjecture with confidence that the simple words “sorry, but you were saying-?”, can make a critical difference, consciously or not, to some young women’s readiness to do philosophy. It might sound silly, especially if one forgets how susceptible all humans are to seemingly insignificant factors, but it is not silly, but rather tragic, if we have lost some wonderful potential contributions to the field just because we couldn’t wait for someone to finish talking. It would show the wrong priorities if we continue to lose such wonderful contributions in the name of some supposed sacred right to be as obnoxious as we’ve always been.

For further reflections on philosophy and rudeness, inspired by Arpaly, check out Kieran Healy.

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