The Role (and Limits) of Civility

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.

Feminist critique greeted with thousands of abusive comments. This is our surprised face.

UPDATED July 10, 2012 (profbigk): Although she’s now received an amount of viciousness that surprises even those of us who thought we were cynical, Sarkeesian has raised about $160,000, an amount well over her goal.

What’s that computer game called where a woman makes a feminist argument and then the other players respond with violent, misogynistic, abusive remarks? Oh, yeah. The internet.

The most recent (well, we can’t guarantee something worse didn’t happen 30 seconds ago, but we live in hope) instance of this phenomenon surrounds Anita Sarkeesian, whom you will surely know for her wonderful YouTube videos in which she applies the Bechdel Test to recent films. Earlier this week, Sarkeesian made a pitch for Kickstarter funds to research misogyny in video games.

The response was immediate, overwhelming, and sadly predictable — thousands of abusive comments inpugning her in the most racist, violent, misogynistic terms. (One term, beginning with “c” was especially popular.) The great news is that Sarkeesian has, so far, garnered ten times the financial support she was seeking. Here’s the full story from New Statesman.


Sarkeesian decided to leave the comments on her video, as proof that such sexism exists. I think it’s important that she did, because too often the response to stories like this, “Come on, it can’t be that bad”. There are two reasons for this: first, that if you don’t experience this kind of abuse, it’s difficult to believe it exists (particularly if you’re a man and this just isn’t part of your daily experience). Secondly, because news reports don’t print the bad words. We’ve got into a weird situation where you have to get a TV channel controller to sign off a comedian using the word “cunt” after 9pm, but on the internet, people spray it round like confetti. We read almost-daily reports of “trolls” being cautioned or even jailed, but often have no idea what they’ve said.

As the (male) gamer who pointed me to this story observed, ” I’ve gotten into my fair share of heated discussions on the internet, but I think the worst I’ve been called is an idiot. No one seems to dig out Billy Bob’s Big Book of Rape Threats for dudes, but remember, that’s not privilege…”

Thanks, JT.

Addendum: By popular request, here is the link to Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project page.

Now that’s an apology! A lesson for Komen

In a comment on the post on lovely pictures , I noted that the site,, had a revolting article on what a shame it was that another site took so much heat for encouraging men to rape women.  The other site is is a site run by UK university men and it’s apparently a lot about football.  Curiosity got the better of me, so I went over to the site just to see.   What I encountered is some apology all right!

Komen Foundation, look at a good way to make an apology that people will believe.  In your case, replacing those behind the decision not to fund Planned Parenthood would be a similar apology.

Enough on Komen from me!

It worked! The blackout, that is.

According to tne NYTimes at least:

WASHINGTON — When the powerful world of old media mobilized to win passage of an online antipiracy bill, it marshaled the reliable giants of K Street — the United States Chamber of Commerce, the Recording Industry Association of America and, of course, the motion picture lobby, with its new chairman, former Senator Christopher J. Dodd, the Connecticut Democrat and an insider’s insider.

Yet on Wednesday this formidable old guard was forced to make way for the new as Web powerhouses backed by Internet activists rallied opposition to the legislation through Internet blackouts and cascading criticism, sending an unmistakable message to lawmakers grappling with new media issues: Don’t mess with the Internet.

As a result, the legislative battle over two once-obscure bills to combat the piracy of American movies, music, books and writing on the World Wide Web may prove to be a turning point for the way business is done in Washington. It represented a moment when the new economy rose up against the old.**

“I think it is an important moment in the Capitol,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California and an important opponent of the antipiracy legislation. “Too often, legislation is about competing business interests. This is way beyond that. This is individual citizens rising up.”

Phone calls and e-mails poured in to Congressional offices against the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the Protect I.P. Act in the Senate. One by one, prominent backers of the bills dropped off.

**one wishes!

An interesting pair of articles

from the Huffington Post last week.

Article 1: One in four (insured) women take mental health medicine. One question posed: “One in four women is on antidepressants, and women are using — or at least prescribed — these medications at higher rates than men. Any idea why that’s happening? ” The answer given has to do with women being more willing to seek medical attention, and the possibliity that they are more at risk for serious psychiatric disorders.

But another article from the same week could be seen as suggesting a different explanation: This article concerns gaslighting, “emotional manipulation that feeds an epidemic in our country, an epidemic that defines women as crazy, irrational, overly sensitive, unhinged. This epidemic helps fuel the idea that women need only the slightest provocation to unleash their (crazy) emotions. It’s patently false and unfair.”

Many thanks to L for the links, and for suggesting the pairing.

On Rapists

Charlotte Allen wrote a deeply problematic column on Slut Walks, Halloween costumes, and the need for women to stop confusing men into raping them by dressing sexy.

One of the many responses it inspired was this one, which contained some fascinating and important research on rape. Maybe it’s familiar to all of you, but it’s news to me– and I think it actually does call for some rethinking of various feminist claims (for example, about pornography making men *in general* not understand women’s sexual refusals). Here’s a bit of it:

Most rapes are committed by a single-digit portion of the population. They use the methods that produce the least evidence and are least likely to get them prosecuted: they use alcohol and fear rather than overt force, they target acquaintances rather than strangers, and they employ careful methods to test boundaries and select victims who are least likely to be able or willing to resist or seek redress. Each such serial rapist has an average of six victims.

What does that mean for Allen? Well, her theory is totally at odd with that. Careful, planning predators are not overcome with urges they can’t control. They don’t test and see, plot to isolate and intoxicate. That takes hours, or even days. That is the work of a cold, calculating predator. It means rapists are not just the average guy, and the average guy is not a rapist. It means that rape is not the result of miscommunications, and since it’s not the result of miscommunications, sending “mixed signals” isn’t the problem.

What is the problem? Well, in the first instance, the rapists are the problem. They need to stop raping people. But they’re not doing it by accident, so no program of education will make them stop. Instead, we as a culture need to clear the underbrush they hide in: the tangle of sexist crap and conventional wisdom that results in a practical inability to enforce laws against rape except in cases that fit a very narrow paradigm. Make no mistake, the culture is the problem.

Jason Stanley on Silencing and Political Speech

Good stuff!

The feminist scholar Catharine MacKinnon famously declared, “Pornography silences women.” In the 1990s, the philosophers of language Jennifer Hornsby and Rae Langton developed an account of the mechanisms of silencing that could substantiate MacKinnon’s claim. But their basic ideas extend beyond the examples they chose, and can inform us about silencing in our political discourse today.

Stuff that needs to be said

Frank Herbert on the Republican candidate for governor of NY:

One of the things that can happen in the news business is that some portion of a story becomes so vile, so offensive, it is virtually impossible to effectively recount or describe. Reporters keep their distance. Editors lunge for the delete button.

Such is the case with the images and videos forwarded by Mr. Paladino to a wide variety of people. The public should know about these mailings, and Mr. Paladino should give a full, thoughtful explanation of why he trafficked in such filth.

Example: A photo showing a group of black men trying to get out of the way of an airplane that is apparently moving across a field. The caption reads: “Run niggers, run.”

Example: A doctored photo of President and Mrs. Obama showing the president in a stereotypical pimp’s costume holding the hand of the first lady, who is dressed as a prostitute in a grotesquely revealing outfit…

Publishing bigotry: what obligations do we have?

Steve Pyke’s new set of photographs of philosophers contains one of  Slavoj Zizek.  Clicking on it gives one a larger version of the photograph and the following quote:

I HATE philosophy, but I cannot find peace if I do not get rid of a
philosophical problem. Philosophy is for me like women: they are
impossible, but it is even more difficult without them. I am only
happy between the writing of two books – then I relax… and start
thinking of philosophy.

Of course Zizek, who is very often said to be charismatic and brilliant, is really out of anyone’s control, apparently.  I don’t see this fact, though, as mitigating anything.

In academia we are particularly concerned with free speech, and that concern seems particularly appropriate now as many universities see corporations as providing good models.  But does this mean it is permissible to propagate the remarks of a bigot?

I’ve used strong words and I haven’t taken account of the fact that Zizek’s words may have been uttered in a context that lessens or changes the impact of what he’s said.  Nonetheless, as the words are conveyed, all that is lost if it was ever present.

Perhaps, though, we should say that the quote provides a salutory warning to students:  Avoid this guy!

What do you think?

(Thanks to SD for the info.)

Fruit bats and sexual harassment: addition

This post is not about bat-on-bat harassment.  It isn’t really exactly about sexual harassment.  Rather, it’s about a very messy and unclear situation at the University College Cork (Ireland) that surrounds a complaint of sexual harassment.

A male professor showed a female  professor an article about bat fellatio (which we commented on here).   She complained to human resources, and he was censured and is subject to two years of monitoring.  The web is full of discussions of the incident, which almost entirely see it in terms of a violation of the right to free speech (though not all do).  So presented, the assumption seems to be that he easily could have been just very interested in evolution and sexuality, and she was probably nasty or unstable.  And, of course, it is very worrying if one result of all this is that discussions of the sex life of other species are now seen as dangerous to one’s career.

One thing to wonder about here is whether people who are making the assumption of his blamelessness have had much experience in the varieties of sexual harassment.   There are  people who talk altogether too much about  gender characteristics and sexuality; they are at least creepy.  I can think of two recent cases in my academic  environment: one was sadly disturbed, I thought.  It was as though he lacked a “shut off” mechanism that keeps most of us from sharing too much information about our inner lives.  After a particularly revolting grad class on Louis Caroll, sex with children and semen, the women in the class complained, but I doubt  much was done.  The other person was different and in a  powerful position.  The constant foregrounding of one’s “charm and jewelry” was part of an ongoing power play.  I did complain, to no good effect, and I certainly got a very negative scolding from someone in authority.

Still, for all we know, maybe the “he” in this story thought it was just a fun article.  Perhaps it was all just a gigantic misunderstanding.   

One thing we learn here is once again the perils of complaining about sexual harassment.  You may face the judgment of “peers” who are pretty clueless, though not hesitant to judge you negatively.   This is not to say that the man in question was harasser.   It is to say the facts we know do not settle the issue.

(Thanks to KC and Mr. Jender.)

Here by the way is her account:

It is one document split into two pieces.

Addition:  having read her account, I have to say it is very believable.  I’d be really interested in hearing whether others have had this sort of (alleged) experience.