Great blogpost on civility

From the Sooty Empiric.

The idea is that given that Trump et al. obviously don’t care about civility norms, you’re fruitlessly tying your hands behind your back to insist on upholding them when in dialogue with the brutes. Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, don’t obey Queensbury rules when they’re hitting all and only below the belt, etc etc. One can see the intuition here fairly well; incivility is evidently a powerful weapon of rhetorical warfare (Trump is president!) and we shouldn’t surrender it to people who will use the power they attain by it to do very great harm to a very great many people. I think that once upon a time I would have agreed (so, vain as I am, I certainly don’t think this is an obviously wrong headed or foolish take or anything of the sort), but I’m now inclined to disagree. This post is about why I changed my mind.

Read on!

Karen Stohr on Contempt

Karen Stohr has a wonderful essay on contempt and the current political discourse in the NYTimes Stone section today.  An excerpt:

It may seem as though the best response to Trump’s contempt is to return it in kind, treating him the same way he treats others. The trouble, though, is that contempt toward Trump does not function in the same way that his contempt toward others functions. Even if we grant that Trump deserves contempt for his attitudes and behaviors, his powerful social position insulates him from the worst of contempt’s effects. It is simply not possible to disregard or diminish the agency of the president of the United States. This means that contempt is not a particularly useful weapon in the battle against bigotry or misogyny. The socially vulnerable cannot wield it effectively precisely because of their social vulnerability.

The better strategy for those who are already disempowered is to reject contempt on its face. Returning contempt for contempt legitimizes its presence in the public sphere. The only ones who benefit from this legitimacy are the people powerful enough to use contempt to draw the boundaries of the political community as they see fit. Socially vulnerable people cannot win the battle for respect by using contempt as a way to demand it. In an environment where contempt is an acceptable language of communication, those who already lack social power stand to lose the most by being its targets. The only real defense against contempt is the consistent, strong and loud insistence that each one of us be regarded as a full participant in our shared political life, entitled to hold all others accountable for how we are treated.

Charity and Anonymity

Brian Leiter has recently posted a complaint about the APA Code of Conduct’s recommendations urging caution regarding online anonymity. He targets this blog in particular for criticism (in addition to another blog I have not seen and thus leave aside here in all that follows). He writes:

‘In what possible sense is anonymity “sometimes unavoidable”?  One can either post using one’s name or not.  And what constitutes “judicious” usage of anonymity?   Surely, for example, a blog like Feminist Philosophers with many pseudonymous posters operating for years under their pseudonyms–e.g., “Philodaria,” “Monkey,” “Magical Ersatz,” “Lady Day,” “Prof Manners”–are not using anonymity “judiciously”:  they are using it to shield themselves from being accountable for what they write.  And such anonymity is clearly avoidable, as others (for example, the philosophers Anne Jacobson and Jennifer Saul) post under their own names at the very same blog…. And for those who take the APA Code of Conduct seriously–maybe at least its drafters (about whom more soon) if no one else–do they not have an obligation now to “out” these philosophers using anonymity unjudiciously, and thus in “violation” of the Code?’

I want to take this opportunity to address a few issues attached to the use of anonymity in both blogging and in comments, speaking only for myself and not for the bloggers here as a whole of course.

Read More »

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.

“Angry white men” A challenge

The challenge: Discuss the following civilly. Most readers will not really find it at all difficult to meet the challenge. I hope all can do it.

Some of our readers may have noticed that a number of recent venues, purporting to provide opportunities to discuss the philosophy profession, end up containing expressions of anger, even rage, that is unusual compared to the sort of academic discourse most of us are used to. And a very favorite topic centers on “the” feminists, and their supposed quest for world professional domination.

Angry White Men by a distinguished sociologist, Michael Kimmel, offers an explanation for the kind of the anger we see. Since anonymous comments on blogs may express anger and rage in all sorts of context, we might think his explanation is just partial. But we can still consider whether his account offers a good explanation of an anger that in fact targets women in the philosophy profession. With few exceptions, we would seem to most people, I think, as fairly tame game. But in some contexts we (or at least those on this blog) have recently been called ‘moral monsters’ quite a few times.  Kimmel offers the following as the background. It is precisely the loss of this high privilege that he take to be fueling the anger:

Yet the truth is that white men are the beneficiaries of the single greatest affirmative action program in world history. It’s called “world history.” White men so stacked the deck that everyone else was pretty much excluded from playing at all. When those others did begin to play, the field was so uneven that white men got a massive head start, and everyone else had to play with enormous handicaps. Maybe actually having to play evenly matched, on a level playing field, is too frightening for a gender that stakes its entire identity on making sure it wins every time.

He then looks at what is happening as we are reaching the end of patriarchy:

Angry White Men tells the story of the other side of the American Dream: the futility, the dashed hopes, the despair, and the rage. It tells the story of the rich and famous wannabes, the ones who thought they could invent themselves, reinvent themselves, be even more successful than their fathers. It tells the story of how white American men came to believe that power and authority were what they were entitled to, by birth, and how that birthright is now eroding. Economic and social changes that are bewilderingly fast and dramatic are experienced as the general “wimpification” of American men— castrated by taxation, crowded out by newcomers who have rules bent for them, white men in America often feel like they are presiding over the destruction of their species.

Discuss, please!

Academic free speech and the academy: an informative approach

Mary Margaret McCabe has a thoughtful post on free speech and civility. She argues that there is a pragmatic inconsistency in letting civility trump free speech in the academy.

If academic institutions exist for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, whether alone, or with colleagues, or with students, such inquiry does not say in advance what may or may not be thought, or considered or assumed or believed. Socrates’ injunction to follow the argument where it leads is surely the right one: inquiry is not constrained by canons of what can or cannot be said or thought. This is true, at whatever level the inquiry occurs. So an inquiry into inquiry is similarly unconstrained. Equally, an inquiry into how inquiry should be institutionalized is free in the same way. The context of inquiry, that is, is a suitable topic for inquiry too – the openness runs across fields and up the orders, to include, of course, the inquiry into academic freedom itself.

If that is right, then the basis of academic freedom is internal to the nature of academic business.

What about civility? Aside from cases of the impossible interlocutor, one who will not listen, civility is something to which we academics should aspire:

Civility is an important aspiration in the context of inquiry that is free in the sense I outlined. For free inquiry occurs between and among people; and people are over and over affected not only by the content of what is said, or even the general import of what is said, but also by its manner and its tone. Loud and fierce declarations of opinion often force an interlocutor to be silent, or to be afraid; in such cases civility is clearly conducive to an effective and productive exchange of ideas.