When may I be rude?

[Note: I wrote this before recent events and, in light of them, hesitated to post it. I’ve overcome that hesitation so here goes.] Discussion on several blogs has lately seemed to entertain issues that cycle round the question: When may I be rude? I despair of this question since I think giving ourselves permission to be rude is quite hazardous and significantly elides the reality that we are not likely to constrain our rudeness to only those cases where we have cool-headedly identified a plausible warrant. It’s more likely that, having given ourselves inches, we will take miles. Still, there are conditions under which being rude may be quite tempting. I’m not sure when or whether these conditions would sanction rudeness, but maybe it’s useful to identify some cautions against easy assent to rudeness in any of them.Read More »

Coarse Realities

The early Chinese philosopher Xunzi remarks on the power of social environments to influence the attitudes we broadly hold toward others and toward ourselves. He importantly acknowledges that these influences often transpire below conscious awareness, our experiences working on us without our knowledge. He evocatively characterizes social atmospheres in terms of what one “rubs up against,” the tactile metaphor suggesting that our environments, when flourishing, can register like silk on skin, such that our interactions are smooth and pleasing, fostering companionship and fellow feeling. In the alternative, they can, like sandpaper, abrade, wearing away at us incrementally and rendering it tempting to become misanthropic, to eschew participation with others in favor of the protections afforded by solitude, or, worse, to become coarse ourselves, accommodating our environment by mirroring it in our own manner.


Our profession, I often think, favors sandpaper. It can create climates in which being in the company of others, whether in person or online, erodes confidence that others can be well-meaning, can cooperate toward shared ends, or that we are worth more than whatever fleeting measures of status we manage to secure. And I think the effects of this steal upon us slowly. The skin gradually toughens and one can begin to assume and replicate the feel of what one encounters.


In my own experience this was brought home when I was in graduate school and found myself at a bar with non-philosopher friends debating a philosophical issue. I cannot remember now what the issue was, but what stuck with me was how my most pugilistic friend reveled in my participation in this conversation, the way in which I “slayed” someone who disagreed with me. He noted approvingly that graduate school had turned me into “someone who brings a gun to a knife fight.” I was dismayed by this and remain so, and have since tried (with uneven success) to avoid this.


I have not been in the profession all that long, yet it does seem to me that the sandpaper has grown coarser as time has passed. Yes, I know that philosophers have throughout history found creative ways to insult their opponents. Likewise, I understand the hazards in administratively legislated civility (and, to be clear, my concern is with socially shared professional norms rather than enforced codes). But I cannot quite reconcile myself to thinking that philosophers calling each other names, employing scorn in place of argumentation, and, yes, even using vulgar language is the best we can do. I know we often alibi such modes by vaunting our “plain-speaking” ways and our freedom from the taboos and strictures that govern those less critical of staid polite convention. But polite speech can well be plain too, and efforts to claim we are socially subversive in our rudeness fall rather flat when you consider how tragicomically un-subversive the profession’s demographic profile is. Indeed, it sometimes feels as being polite is the most radical thing a philosopher can do.

Your Philosophy Paper: Got Women?

Dear Professor Manners,


Suppose a colleague shares a paper with you in an area of philosophy you don’t work in.  And suppose the bibliography contains no citations to women.  You’d like to point this out, politely, but since this is not your area, you don’t know the literature and thus can’t point the paper author to particular articles written by women that might be consulted/cited.  (And it would be a non-trivial and time-consuming matter to do the literature review yourself.)  You really don’t want to stay silent about this, but you are feeling somewhat vulnerable for various reasons.  What is the best way to proceed?



Timid but troubled

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Collaboration & Diversity


I’ve been a longtime follower of this blog, and have recently found myself in an opportunity to potentially do something about an instance of racism and sexism in my department. However, because I am a first year student working with a well-established professor, I could greatly use some advice from people experienced with dealing with these sorts of issues in academia.


Over the past week, my supervisor invited the students working with him to group sessions to discuss ways in which we could promote collaboration in the department, something he has been investigating practically and theoretically for a number of years. The problem is that, looking around the room, one could not help but notice that all of the half dozen people he surrounds himself with are white men.  This surprised me, because he has generally been supportive of feminist and anti-racist scholarship, but of course it should not be that surprising (unfortunately) that this interest does not pan out in practice. That said, as a white male myself, I’m having trouble determining how a professor with an open-door policy and nominally feminist viewpoints is subtly driving away all but a select group of people. I’ve asked women in my department, but they have generally been adverse to discussing this problem fully.


It seems to me that these serious and frank discussions about group work are an ideal moment to discuss the barriers to participation present in this group, but I’m not quite sure what to actually say. The worst part is that people have already commented on the homogeneity of the group, so it’s not that this is an unknown problem.


Do you have any advice for a young graduate student trying to make a small section of the university more hospitable to women and people of color?

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Work, Favors, Gratitude, and Reciprocity

Gratitude isn’t just good manners, it may be key to registering the work of others and the favors they do for us. A new study from the Columbia Business School suggests women’s work activities and the informal favors that sustain effective networking are not as often registered as work or as favors for which reciprocal responses, much less gratitude, should be expected. See here:


In Praise of Ceremonial Gratitude


Several years ago I was conversing with some other philosophers about philosophy presentations.  One of them described his frustration at having attended an interdisciplinary conference where the question and answer periods following the talks were unproductive.  His complaint specifically focused on the fact that each person who asked a question first thanked the speaker and expressed appreciation for the talk.  This time-wasting insincerity and empty formalism, he concluded, owed to the conference including participants from other disciplines, disciplines that, he implied, lack philosophy’s capacity to cut through vain cant.  A basic, free-floating appreciation for the talk should go without saying – after all, the audience had sat through it.  Anything more just wasted time better spent in critique of the work.

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What’s in a name?


I am a young, female graduate student who was raised in a community where politeness, tact and formality were the norm. One’s elders and superiors (bosses, teachers, etc.) were always to be addressed as “Dr.” or “Ms.” and disagreements were to be minimized and handled with as much politeness as possible. The standards applied across the board to young people of any gender. As a result, my general inclination is to address everyone with respect and formality unless explicitly instructed to do otherwise and to avoid open disagreement in all but the most casual of conversations. I am entering the job market for the first time this year (with a dissertation defense scheduled for the early spring) and am worried about navigating the tricky territory of transitioning from student to colleague (or, in the case of interviews, potential colleague). Should I forgo deference for fear of being seen as “weak” and “feminine”? Will professors take offense at being addressed as an equal by someone who is still a student? Is there a substantial difference in position between “graduate student near completion” and “jobless PhD holder”? Should there be a difference between the way someone in my position addresses junior and senior faculty? This last issue is particularly confusing as I have experienced some junior faculty who insist on formality with graduate students and others who seem irritated by it. Help in this very practical matter is appreciated.

[More below]

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Metaphysics: Just Like Victorian Marriage?

Dear Professor Manners,

During a recent conference presentation, a senior white male academic made several metaphorical remarks about what “wears the trousers” (used to mean: has priority) according to certain philosophical views.

At one point he considered the whether the answer might be “as in a PC marriage, nobody”.

He also used an example in which a man who said sexist things was retaliated against by a woman who turned physically violent towards him.

There was no good philosophical reason for any of this. He was discussing metaphysical grounding.

I was only an audience member and didn’t do or say anything, although I wanted to. The tone of all three things struck me as deeply unpleasant and I was made uncomfortable by them.

In the past, the same person has referred to a much more junior female academic as “a dog” on account of her persistent questioning during a Q&A.

Should I have done or said something on either occasion? What?


Conference Attendee


Dear Conference Attendee,

I became briefly but metaphysically ungrounded by this.  Now recovered, I note that this seems a sadly common problem in the discipline, the gratuitous invocation of stereotyping gender tropes in service to a completely unrelated point.

I do think it’s good and useful to say something, principally because in a public talk, others are present and these others may include students, graduate students, or junior faculty, people whose study and work lives can be compromised by this sort of nonsense floating unchecked in the general atmosphere.  Or worse, there may be people present tempted to emulate this sort of thing in a mistaken view that it’s acceptable and so it’s best to discourage that.

The trouble (or one trouble among the legion) in responding to such remarks is that in a formal presentation, there is a reasonable desire not to disrupt the event and not to shame the speaker.  I suspect this will be contentious but I think these impulses are generally laudatory.

The worry I have is that if we disrupt or shame (even where righteously warranted), we risk encouraging this as a wider practice and not all of what people take as provocations to disruption or shaming will be well warranted.  Moreover, I think there is often already a pugilistic atmosphere in the way many talks and Q & A sessions operate.  I wish it weren’t so, but hope not to add to it.  Finally, my hope in any response would be to convey my dismay in such a way that others would incline toward joining me in it.  Purely strategically, I doubt that’s best done through disruption or shaming.  So, what to do then?

I’d aim for a response that registers the problem but allows the speaker (graceless though he may be) a graceful retreat from his own comments.  Here are some examples, not all equally gentle but all trying to be polite but pointed:

“I believe I understand your point about X, but the stereotyping nature of your examples regarding marriage and sexism seems a distraction that risks muddying the waters.  Could you re-frame the point without these for the sake of clarity?”

“The metaphors invoking marriage you use appear to rely on a inegalitarian model of marriage being preferable so I worry that I’ve mistaken the point at which the metaphors aim.  Could you clarify just how these metaphors about marriage are meant to work?”

“The metaphors invoking marriage you use seem to rely on an inegalitarian model of marriage being preferable.   Given that this is typically seen as archaic, would you say that looking for a metaphysical grounding that ‘wears the trousers’ is similarly archaic?”

All of these indirectly encourage the speaker to drop the obnoxious metaphors and examples.  He may of course dig the hole deeper in response, but if so, the hole he’s in is all the more likely to become apparent to all present and that in itself is valuable.  The longer hope is that if speakers who casually deploy such examples find themselves queried about the examples, they’ll soon seek better ones.  (Who wants to give a talk on metaphysical grounding only to have to defend his views of marriage!?!)

I hasten to acknowledge that these possible responses have a similar pattern that entails some risk, particularly if the one responding is a woman.  They each in some measure have the questioner behaving as if she needs a (presumably relatively clear) point clarified, rarely a good spot for women in the discipline.  Still, the clearer the original point was, the less risky this will be, for others present are likely to see the query for what it is, an effort to politely critique gratuitously offensive examples and metaphors.

Finally, I think it worth noting that micromessaging can be very useful as a strategy as well, especially where the aim is to communicate to others present that examples or metaphors are offensive. I often despair of how micromessaging operates in the discipline, with conference rooms full of people adopting their best pinched-faced, skeptical philosopher look.  It’s enough to make me wish they’d text instead.  But body language can speak volumes and especially where one is known by others to be generally polite, a pinched, pained look can be useful in signaling disapproval and dissent.

As for the dog remark, I think I’d say, “I’m sorry, but do you mean to suggest that she’s a bitch?  I worry that that’s what it sounds like, but I’m certain that’s not what you could mean.”