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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.