Philosophical Tone; or Kissing Strangers

My old friend Leigh Johnson has a piece cowritten with Ed Karazian up today at New APPS on tone and civility in philosophy. I’ve already had some things to say in the comments there, but I haven’t done a good job of responding to the substance of what they wrote, so I wanted to take a few minutes for that here.

Now, as I understand it, the argument Leigh and Ed make is that we cannot expect philosophy to function like a community; instead, it should function like the ideals of cosmopolitan life identified with Jane Jacobs (and I would also argue, with Iris Marion Young) where a community of strangers mostly fails to make contact and experience a shared togetherness, and as a result the kinds of cloying closeness of some communities is avoided. Diversity and pluralism flourish in such cities, where neighborhoods create opportunities for community if it is wanted, but always with alternatives, with exit options, and with a mass of co-citizens who we can safely ignore. In cities, we do not feel that we must be friends with everyone we meet; in communities we feel that we are already joined by friendship even with people we have yet to meet (and soon there are no new people at all, we’ve met them all.)

What Leigh and Ed argue is that civility codes (and to a lesser extent professional codes of ethics) are attempts to recapture the communal life by enforcing chumminess and friendship, or worse, naked attempts to maintain exclusions at the cost of those who fail to live up those codes:

What is or is not permitted as acceptable speech or behavior, what is or is not viewed as “anti-social,” “un-professional” or “un-collegial”—that is to say, what strikes the ears of community members as resonating with an inappropriate “tone”—will always be defined and policed according to the norms of that group’s social interchange, norms that are determined by those to whom such norms are the most advantageous.

They go on to assure us that the worst offences and assaults on the dignity of colleagues and students already are legislated, and then to suggest that to go further, to require friendship, is a mistake:

Hearts and minds, on the other hand, ought not and cannot be legislated. It is at the level of hearts and minds that our (professional philosophers’) real problem lies.  Before we sign on to any program that mandates certain attitudinal dispositions, we ought to think seriously about the extent to which those initiatives in fact work to further discredit and marginalize the very voices they are intended to protect.

Norms of collegiality can be used to exclude those who don’t fit and haven’t fit into the community, so anything that smacks of legislating away the rough edges should be a non-starter. But there is nonetheless a challenge here in our polis, the challenge of our need to co-habitate in a profession where we are not friends, to engage in a project called philosophy without the collaborations and shared projects that it would seem to require. While I think we should preserve a place for snark and rough and tumble dialogue, I don’t think that means we have to give up on the idea that we’re all in this together.

My issue with tone arguments in philosophy is just that I like disagreements a lot. I take it that one of the real privileges and pleasures of doing philosophy as a profession is ferreting out those people with whom one disagrees on substantive issues and going to work exploring and articulating and perhaps even resolving those disagreements.

In this, the rough-and-tumble of the philosophical world is a good thing: it’s an opportunity to spar a bit with interested others and Others (and there is no doubt that I learn that most from those who I find the most Other.)

So here is my purely selfish suggestion for a civility code: let’s find a way to have boisterous disagreements about matters of shared concern that control the amount of damage done so that, at the end of the day, we can shake it off and wake up again tomorrow to fight again. I understand that we do have to embrace the idea that there are diverse and plural communities of philosophy, and that not everyone wants to make themselves available to spar with everyone else. I should say that I understand that conceptually, but I haven’t yet met those philosophers. No matter who they are, no matter what group they belong to, I’ve always found philosophers to be the type who want to talk it out, fight it out, and so on, even (or especially) with those who they think are the most deeply wrong or wrong-headed.

Any code of ethics for this group would certainly enforce a kind of “fitting in,” because what norms do not have insiders and outsiders? But like the art world, I want to believe that this community of philosophers is, at its best, a community where one fits only by not fitting, by being an irritant and irritated by each other. What Rawlsian doesn’t glory in the critiques of Rawls from Mills and Pateman? What dualist doesn’t crave a good argument with a passionate naturalist? What skeptic doesn’t like a nice tussle with a naive realist?

I think we need each other too much to alienate each other for good. Who else can put up with us than our fellow philosophers? Who else cares about the arguments and ideas enough to go line-by-line and tear them apart?

One objection I envision is that this is too unserious an approach. When we’re talking about prisons or torture or death we can’t afford to just spar; we need to fight, and win, because if we don’t the opposing ideas could contribute to injustice or damnation. In that sense, doing philosophy for joy is maybe a bit privileged, when there are folks doing it for survival. But I can’t help thinking that we could use the joy, all of us and especially those who do philosophy out of necessity, too.

Can’t we, even as strangers, even with our history of alienation and able white male cisgendered supremacy, find something worth sharing? Aren’t we all émigrés from elsewhere, rootless and stateless and clutching at this profession for something more than a nine-to-five?

Strangers don’t have to ignore each other, and they don’t have to fight. Sometimes, they can kiss. Consider this video my proposal:

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