Yesterday morning, on the show Morning Joe, Chris Matthews started a heated exchange with RNC chairman Reince Pribus over whether Mitt Romney was using his own “race card” when he joked about his birth certificate.
Here’s the video of the exchange:
I recommend reading two brief commentaries on this event: Elon James White’s take at The Root and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take at The Atlantic. (Heck, I would recommend their commentaries for just about anything.) White argues and Coates implies that even though Matthews was yelling, talking over Pribus, and cutting him off, his incivility was not really inappropriate here, and actually sorely needed.
In the comments on Coastes’ piece, I came across this exchange that connects Matthew’s outburst to the domain of academia:
I dunno. I exist in a world where the open expression of anger pretty much instantaneously disqualifies you from the discussion unless you’re very, very careful. If I’m in a debate with fellow faculty and I get angry, I’m done (I’ve actually thrashed a couple of colleagues in public debates specifically and knowingly because I held my cool and they lost it in front of everyone). If I get angry at a student, I lose the whole class. Now, I can rant about something independent of that, like injustice or discrimination and get away with it. But if I start yelling AT someone, I’ve generally lost the debate, at least in my world.
I see what you’re saying. But in the world Chris Matthews inhabits, there is little time for a calm, reasoned, thoughtful rebuttal to horsepucky.
I think some people that really need to hear what Matthews is saying–otherwise well-meaning people that are blind to racism unless it comes packaged in a white hood–may be turned off by his explosion, and that’s unfortunate. But I don’t think he was trying to persuade anybody to his point of view; I think he saw himself as getting to the truth, and calling out somebody who was lying to him.
Even if you don’t care about American politics, there are a lot of interesting things going on in the clip above. Issues of anger, civility, silencing, moderating, calling out injustice, race, humor, and ignorance all come out in this five minute clip. Even if the world of politics in the media is incredibly different than the world of academic philosophy, Matthews’ comportment is salient to some of our own concerns about the role (and possible limits) of civil discourse in academic discourse.
(As I like to remind myself: In the face of unreasonableness, responding irrationally is sometimes the reasonable thing to do.)
Lastly, let me lay my cards on the table: When I first watched this clip, I thought Matthews was wrong to be so abrasive and cut of Pribus and talk over him. But after thinking about it more at length today, I’m not so sure anymore. I find myself wondering if it actually was healthier for the discussion as a whole (across the whole media) that Matthews relentlessly hammered home this point that Romney’s birth certificate joke is not race-neutral and it’s bs to insist it is. This conclusion is making me wonder whether there might be limits to the appropriateness of certain aspects of academic discourse, such as the principle of charity, respect of past scholarship, and never insinuating that an argument is insincere.