Fear

The crisis at Hypatia is just the latest occasion to have people in philosophy attesting to being fearful. Fear has become a driver in philosophical discourse, particularly online. The proliferation of pseudonymous participation, anonymous participation, and the entire logic of the various metablog phenomena speak to this. People want to talk but are uneasy and fearful of doing so with their names attached. People also shy away altogether, participating only as readers and, presumably, fleeing philosophy’s online spaces altogether. With the crisis at Hypatia, fear is re-fueled and amplified. People now attest to fear not just of participating in online spaces but of having their work itself exposed to others. Many worry that one effect of the Hypatia situation is that less diverse work will appear in journals because authors won’t be confident writing it and journal editors won’t be confident publishing it. Fear will contract the field yet more.

It seems to me that fear itself is invoked in strange ways in online discourse. On the one hand, it is a commonplace in many conversations about the profession for someone to invoke the old saw that philosophy is meant to be fearless, or to invoke aspects of this purported fearlessness – e.g., the willingness to question anything, to attack sacred cows, and myriad other tropes for what amounts to intellectual bravery. On the other hand, philosophers themselves seek concealment behind pseudonyms, anonymity, or silence and ascribe this to fear. The dissonance in this combination has surely struck many before, but maybe it’s worth considering what there is to fear. For while lots of people are fearful, I expect they’re not all fearful for the same reasons. So, here’s my (likely incomplete) list of ways to fear, along with efforts to credit each type as non-trivial and give it substance:

  1. Fear of being undesirable (e.g., for hire, for professional opportunities).The brutality of the job market is such that anyone seeking employment is going to be risk averse, not wanting to alienate potential hiring committees. Likewise, the untenured want tenure.
  2. Fear of losing status, respect, or reputation. People want both to warrant and have the esteem of their peers, even if their employment is secure.
  3. Fear of doing harm. Some of the behavior lately derided as speech policing (e.g., among those protesting the Hypatia article) emerges from a desire not to inflict harm on others and a willingness to take seriously people’s testimonies about what harms.
  4. Fear of illegitimacy. Imposter syndrome or even mild worry that one is simply not smart enough, good enough, or worthy enough is a regular feature of academic life, a life in which one is surrounded by people who know things you don’t. Saying things that sound stupid risks exposing that you don’t belong and, let’s face it, most of us don’t know we sound stupid till someone else points it out.
  5. Fear of being wrong, getting it wrong (whatever “it” might be).  Presumably, anyone in philosophy cares about have well-supported views, so basic prudence inclines against exposing the undercooked or half-thought thing , not simply because one wants to look right before others, but because one’s own dear self cares about getting things right and is invested in trying.
  6. Fear of being misunderstood, mischaracterized.  Saying things means opening a space to be misunderstood. The more significant the subject, the more one risks costly misunderstanding, being taken in a way one does not mean or having an interlocutor alert you to how you actually sound (or are!) when you are unaware of this yourself.
  7. Fear of being unwelcome, excluded. Closely related to several others is simply losing one’s community or not securing a place in community to begin. We might deride “ingroup” clustering, but people naturally do tend to want community.
  8. Fear of being mocked or shamed.  The pugilistic atmosphere of philosophy is such that even schoolyard insults can feature in our dialogues. Rhetorical point-scoring by way of insult is too commonplace to ignore and can be corrosive.

So, that’s my list and I’d add to it that I think it important to realize that mileage varies for individuals across vectors of complex factors. Things as simple as temperament will bear on how salient some of these are. Likewise, life experience is significant – e.g., someone who is, in life at large, subject to exclusion will have a different experience of #7 than someone who is not.

The point of taxonomizing these is to clarify what is in play when people attest to being fearful within the discipline. Each of these modes of fear speak to aspects of the profession that can seem rather punitive. But together, they also suggest that it’s punitive in so many different directions, it’s hard to know where to begin. E.g., it’s not clear that injunctions for the tenured to speak up under their own names fixes much. The tenured are not insulated from some of these fears and should they be roundly mocked or shamed for their views, it isn’t as though this will open space for untenured to speak. Quite the opposite, I’d think.

From what I can see, the main difference between those who are fearful and those who are not looks something like temperament – e.g., greater risk tolerance, a devil-may-care indifference to others’ views, a high confidence in one’s own rightness, or something of these sorts. But if that’s right, it’s a problem, since it means that those who will speak most and be heard most are just those who have similar temperaments. We’ll hear least from those with greatest humility, those who feel most the pull of social ties they don’t want to break, those who are cautious or less certain of their own views.

It’s tempting to say that prizing particular conversational virtues would help – e.g., charity, humility, respect, etc. This would mean steering clear of contempt, scorn, mockery, insult, and public shaming. My own sense is that for many of the fears above, fear of mockery or shaming is the hub of the wheel. The reductions of the other fears – from losing status, to feeling inadequate, to being wrong – might be alleviated if we did not find all of these made worse by the prospect of being mocked or shamed. But I’m not certain that this is true. It may be my own temperament speaking.

Perhaps the point is just this: One of the systemic problems in the discipline is fear. One of the real risks I see in this, quite beyond its tendency to promote retreat into silence, is that people in such a climate seek protection and safety in numbers. And that in turn means increasing tribalism, factionalism, and cliques. It may also artificially amplify differences since group alignment, as the mechanism for security in precarious contexts, needs to be performed, sometimes dramatically, to serve its function.

It’s not even clear to me that one can say this much without inviting mockery, but there it is. I wish there was a way to fix it beyond rehearsing yet more factionalized accounts of who is to blame.

15 thoughts on “Fear

  1. One of the main criticisms of Tuvel’s claims was that they constituted acts of violence. It seems to me that there is a possible tension between the claim that voicing an idea can be violent, on the one hand, and creating an environment where scholars and commentators alike are not fearful of expressing their own ideas. The charge of violence, after all, carries a strong sentiment of opprobrium, which was clear in much of the criticism of Tuvel’s piece. This, I think, contributes to the atmosphere of fear. Thoughts on whether there is a tension, and how to reconcile it?

  2. X, I’m sure it does contribute to an atmosphere of fear but I don’t think that’s necessarily reducible to worries about opprobium. I think fearing one can harm others via one’s speech can be part of this as well. That people identify speech with violence may make one fear disapproval is true, but it also might inspire one to worry about the myriad thoughtless ways we can harm people. So that’s one thing I’d add.

    Do you think there’s a significant difference between claiming that voicing an idea can be violent and other claims that can inspire fear and depress expression (e.g., that “telling it like it is” justifies insult)? I’m not sure I see this claim as so distinct from others made, explicitly or implicitly, in lots of professional dialogue.

  3. Thanks for this post.

    Some thoughts about fear in relation to this issue…

    Many have been suggesting that the ‘backlash’ to Tuvel’s article contributes to a culture in which people are unable to explore certain questions for fear of reprisal, or for fear of the things mentioned in the original post. I don’t dispute this.

    However, I wonder whether – in some cases – some level of ‘fear’ might encourage the appropriate sensitivity to issues, especially where these concern (the identity of) people who are seriously marginalised in the profession and in society as a whole. I was thinking this because I myself would be perhaps ‘fearful’ of writing on this topic, but in a way that would motivate me to e.g. seek out trans and black authors who have written on the topic, or perhaps even leave room for people who are better epistemically situated than me to write about it (maybe people would have issues with this, though surely we do this all the time when it comes to non-politicised issues in philosophy?).

    Moreover, I suspect that in philosophy as a profession, there is more of a culture of fear surrounding speaking out against epistemic injustices, transphobia, racism, etc. where this apparently conflicts with norms of truth-seeking. This is not to say we shouldn’t criticise those who (putatively) speak out against transphobia etc – of course there may be legitimate critiques to make. Similarly though we should try to hear what those who are speaking out about transphobia might be saying, lest we contribute to a culture of fear of defending some of the most marginalised groups in society. Indeed, it seems to me that many more people have “spoken out” against the critiques made against Tuvel/the article, even vilified the critics, than have vilified Tuvel. I don’t think people are wrong to critique the critics of the article.

    But I think we need to think about what it’s actually more scary to do, and what gets you villified to a greater degree – speaking out in favour of norms of academic freedom broadly speaking, or forcefully speaking out for marginalised groups (in a way that perhaps exaggerates but forces reflection and demands attention). Maybe the petition was poorly thought out, but people are grappling with ideas that have a material effect on vulnerable people here, and are keenly aware that a lack of forcefulness about these issues often means they fail to be heard or dampen the claims.

  4. K, I think what has happened in the last few days very much will discourage some (many?) from forms of public support and I think there was likely fear involved in the original gesture or that fear indirectly motivated some to sign (e.g., by lending one’s name, one might protect other signatories).

    My sense is that the net result of all of this is that everyone is a lot more afraid. I don’t think these fears are equivalent but I was trying to set aside comparisons since some kind/level of fear is pervasive. I guess I was trying to shift the conversation away from who has a right to be afraid, who has rational fear, who has inspired fear to just this: Way too many people altogether are afraid in this discipline and if we could just all start recognizing and seeking to address that, a whole lot would improve. It seems especially important to realize that we can’t alter this by addressing only one vector of the fear – e.g., reasserting “free speech” absent qualifiers about trying not to harm each other or reasserting consideration of vulnerabilities given how terrible the profession regularly proves to be in this. I don’t think fear will get fixed if some “side” here *wins*.

  5. Oh, realize that was completely non-responsive to your first point. Yeah, I think being a little afraid is helpful in all sorts of ways. Fear of hurting others is surely a general good. But I think there are lots of people who are not fearful in the form of learning care but who are fearful in the form of retracting, not participating, not sharing work, not speaking, etc.

  6. I’m not posting some comments received on this post because they are trying to re-litigate or analyze the Hypatia situation. Part of my point with the post was to step beyond this and frame it as an iteration of an increasingly familiar phenomenon. I know governing the direction of discussion is itself freighted, but there are already lots of conversations on the particulars of Hypatia and I really would prefer to focus on the systemic issues and, especially, hear about possible remedies or strategies.

  7. Do mean the femminist mag? Damn. Crisis? I though it was a city that was being bombed or something. Lol.

    But we do love to be dramatic, no?

  8. Fear, maybe. Power differentials, most likely. Psychoanalysis of fear in the discipline, however accurate in its descriptions, floats somewhat close to the surface of problems at issue of late. Below, we’ll find deeper layers of long-term, generational power imbalances. Philosophers with little fear often have so little fear because they have unearned power that bolsters, and corrupts. And they wield it as if by birthright. Consider: philosophy of liberation may never have a home in the rest of the discipline precisely because it countenances against cruel power imbalances, and calls for relationships that precondition any chance for social justice. If you could only eliminate one of the two, fear or power imbalances, which would you choose for the sake of long-term intergenerational benefits?

  9. Prof. Manners notes: “The proliferation of pseudonymous participation, anonymous participation, and the entire logic of the various metablog phenomena speak to [fear]. People want to talk but are uneasy and fearful of doing so with their names attached.”

    A modest observation: it is much easier and safer to post under your own name if you are cautious, nuanced, and charitable. I happen to think that caution, nuance, and charity are virtues in online discussion in their own right, but even if you disagree, purely practically you will probably get a lot more impact from a cautious, nuanced, charitable comment under your own name than from an impassioned and forceful outburst under the cloak of anonymity.

  10. David Wallace, while I don’t always agree with what you say, I do appreciate your even-handed, professional, and polite way of interacting online. I suppose my only reservation about what you say here is that even when one is trying to be charitable and polite, it’s still possible to draw unreasoning and hostile responses. I wish I felt confident that if more just used their names and aimed for charity, the conditions of fearfulness would dissipate. I don’t feel very hopeful or confident that this would be prudent for many to try.

  11. I don’t really disagree. It’s a relative statement, really: it is *easier*, but not necessarily easy, to write under your own name if you are charitable and careful. Not least because I think you’re right about “mockery and shaming” being at the core of people’s fear, and you are much more likely to be defended by third parties from mockery and shaming if your own online behavior is charitable and careful.

  12. May I suggest an addition to the list? Some people fear participating in some discussions for fear of having physical harm brought upon them for it. For example, when people express some views publicly, others sometimes come and say they’d like to beat them up or rape them or hurt their children or kill them.

    I am sure some people will think I am being hyperbolic, but I’m not.

  13. You speak of temperamental differences and they stand out to me here.

    I have literally no fear of being mocked or shamed—but the fear of present statements affecting future earnings in unexpected ways drove me out of academia after I earned my Ph.D. (following several pitched battles over arguments that were perceived as “improper” in similarly dubious ways to those that Tuvel has been forced to confront, though not nearly as publicly), and it all now causes me to keep my former academic work entirely cordoned off from my post-ac professional persona now.

    I find that we live in a society in which one must never utter anything about any issue that may be perceived under any circumstances as controversial or contrary to established political mores (and, notably, the most restrictive of these)—or, in fact, one may find oneself sooner or later in the poorhouse.

    So long is this continues, the American academy will continue to decline an American business will continue to flounder into mediocrity relative to its competitors.

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