A young philosopher at a top research university writes: "The thing that always astonishes me is that they [bloggers, journalists etc.] put on this air of pained affront if an academic gets short with them - 'I don't expect this tone from an educator' and all that jazz. Jesus, they should have been in a room with Jerry 'I just have one question: was your paper a joke?' Fodor, or Kim 'but there's no fucking evidence for that!' Sterelny.
UPDATE: Philosopher Tad Brennan at Cornell writes with an explanation:
Journalists are surprised that academics can be short with them because they last met academics in the classroom, and most professors are kind and generous when dealing with students. Serious academics save their scathing put-downs for colleagues and equals--I doubt that those quotes from Fodor and Sterelny document interactions with students.
Instead of feeling pained and affronted, the bloggers and journalists should take it as a compliment: 'hey, those academics are treating me like an equal!' That can help to salve the bruises, anyhow. And it also shows why a sharp-tongued critique directed at a non-student is no betrayal of the "tone" appropriate to an "educator". If you are my student, then I have an obligation to be your educator; if not, not.
That certainly describes my own sentiments (and practices) exactly.
JJ at Feminist Philosophers recently posted Rats! The 'Rats!' of the post title refers to that fact that JJ wants to comment on Leiter's post, but comments are not enabled (as is the case with most of the Leiter Reports posts). From the post:
There’s Brian Leiter over on his blog treating philosophers’ rudeness as a joke. Or, equally, as something you should experience as proof you are being treated as an insider.
Notice that though he and those acting like him apparently think they’d never, ever treat students with crushing rudeness, everyone else is fair game. Interesting view of social interaction and one’s place in it.
Is the priority given to one’s feelings and thoughts in an academic debate - and the obvious sense of entitlement to nastily dump on people- narcissistic? Is there really any justification for comments that are nasty and bitter enough that, when made by a powerful figure, they can lead to one’s being ostracized? What do you think?
Comments are enabled (as is the case with most of the Feminist Philosophers posts).
Both posts are very short; you may wish to read them yourselves. Both posts also contain related links you may wish to read.
I really, really, really don't like acceptance and encouragement of willful rudeness within philosophy (or within most areas). I must admit that I just don't understand the attraction. Be sure that I'm referring to unncessary rudeness, meanness, nastiness, etc. I am not referring to constructive criticism. Some thoughts:
- Again, what's the attraction with being crushingly rude to anyone within your field? Where's the benefit to any party?
- I suppose some people are motivated by a verbal kick in the pants such as one might receive in 'scathing put-downs' from their 'colleagues and equals'. I am not and I'll make a bold claim that most people are not so motivated. What does the recipient's motivation matter? Well, it'd be one thing if we could claim that this kind of nastiness at least produces new, improved and perhaps lemon-scented philosophy. Can we say that? Perhaps, but I'll not make that particular claim.
- Does the giver receive any kind of benefit? I admit that, in general interactions, it sometimes feels good to get in a good one to one's (perceived) opponent. For about 30 seconds. If that long. Then I start to feel like I've scored a rather petty reward and wish I could take back my mean, thoughtless comments. Mom was right: 'You must be a little person to belittle another person.' If she said that once, she said it 784 times (I counted)
- Gor, do we need divas in philosophy? Sure, there's always going to be egomaniacs in philosophy bc there will always be egomaniacs and some of them will end up in philosophy. Should we encourage pain-in-the-ass-hood within philosophy? Can we please leave divahood to pop culture celebrities?
- As an aside, once upon a time, at an institution far, far away, a professor once remarked on how quiet a seminar had been and wondered why that was. Of course, students responded with their so-far customary silence. He went on a bit. I suggested that maybe people found him intimidating (I did). He responded that he knew he was intimidating. Hmmm. Okay, maybe here's a clue as to why the seminar is so quiet? Now, I should clarify that he didn't say he revelled in his intimidating nature. For all I know, it could be something he's working on changing so as to be more approachable. Discussion seemed to open up after that meeting. Perhaps just bringing up the lack of discussion was sufficient to get things going. I recall this professor once said that a particular student comment was the only worthwhile thing he'd heard so far (as in so far in the semester in that seminar). My thought on stuff like that: Compliment the student on his comment if you like, but keep the other stuff to yourself. I'm not here to please you; I'm here to get myself an education.
- As a further aside, I am currently in a seminar in which the professor exhibits a style of discourse I greatly admire. It strikes me as a rather old-fashioned manner, although I don't know for sure that it is (bc I'm not quite that old myself). I don't know this for sure, but I get the feeling that he's as polite in seminar as he is out of seminar, i.e., this is generally how he interacts with people. I may be wrong about that, but that's what I would like to be the case. Wrt comments and questions: compliments the better ones; redirects the poor ones; fully considers all of them. Does not hesitate to say 'I don't know', which is so refreshing! There's plenty of discussion in each seminar. Heck, even I - who, longtime readers will recall, has issues with speaking up - have asked questions (plural!) in seminar meetings (plural again!). And felt no issues! Even when I asked a really stupid question last time (bc I overlooked one rather pivotal word in the example, along the lines of reading 'There is' instead of 'There is not'), I didn't feel stupid in that setting.
- Some folks have suggested different attitudes are appropriate for different roles. E.g., the 'kind and generous' professor in the second aside above may well be entirely appropriate for the role of teacher to student where it would be inappropriate, perhaps even condescending, in the role of professor to professor (or other supposed equal). Certainly, expectations are different; Brennan's update in Leiter's post alludes to this. I don't see how it follows that greater yet unmet expectations require greater rudeness. Again, what does that do? Even if it doesn't do anything practical, e.g., inspire the recipient, is there some theoretical justification for being nasty?
I understand that people (read: I) get frustrated and sometimes that comes out in our (read: my) personal interactions. I'm not talking about that. E.g., at work I sometimes want to scream at people to come on into the 20th century already when they bitch and moan and go on and on (really!) about replacing the card catalog with a computer-based catalog...but I don't (I might do so in my head). Sometimes I do lose it, even with people with whom I should perhaps be more patient (e.g., maybe it's common of all public libraries, but we have a number of patrons with, shall we say, issues; I'm no expert, but I gather it's these issues that encourage some of them to complain about other patrons spying on them or ranting and yelling [!] about the policy of the public computers turning off 10 minutes before closing time [apparently, said patron believes they should stay on until exactly closing time - he always inquires as to whether we still have that 'stupid-ass policy'...]). Okay, okay, enough shop talk...what I'm talking about here, at too much length, is simply to point out what I'm not talking about: occasional rudeness. I'm talking about maintaining a negative, unconstructively critical (I think I'm giving birth to jargon here) attitude as a matter of course. Heck, sometimes it comes off as a matter of pride.
- Justification for acceptance/encouragement of crushing rudeness seem to refer to stature, position within the field, etc., as if the more well-known you are, the more justified you are in being nasty. ('Well-known' does not necessarily mean also 'well regarded' or also 'knowledgeable about X', although those may all be the case.) I don't see how it follows that greater renown gives one some kind of right to be nasty.
- I've heard it said that there's so much bad philosophy and pseudo-philosophy out there (esp. on the innertubes) that someone's got to hammer down on those responsible...for the sake of philosophy! (That last part was dramatic license.) I suppose that's one way to go about raising the level of philosophy, perhaps especially public and/or amateur philosophy. (I don't mean 'amateur philosophy' in as condescending a way as it sounds; I have not yet found a better term for what I want to convey.) This reminds me a bit of the idea that U.S. secularists and religious types who are unsympathetic toward religious fundementalists shouldn't ignore the latter and their activities as 'crazy' or 'too far out there to ever affect me' bc before you know it Pat Robertson will be president, abortion will be illegal, Christianity will be the official religion of the country, etc. There's something plausible about wanting to preserve X by active discouragement of Y, attempts to dismantle Y, etc. Public approval or disapproval by experts, people in power, etc. can be powerful influences on public opinion. I'll admit that the current pope got a big boost in my estimation yesterday (I didn't have much of an estimation of him previously) and only bc I read that he loves cats! That's all it takes to earn my favor. Of course, he loses that favor immediately if it turns out that he kills puppies for fun. But you get the point: shun the bad philosophy, embrace the good philosophy and perhaps the good philosophy will grow while the bad philosophy withers and dies. Not a crazy idea...but how best to do it? I believe it was Gandhi who said, 'Hate the sin, love the sinner.' Or something. I'm not religious, but this is a not-crazy idea when applied to this non-religious situation. Crushing rudeness is not just about a bad batch of philosophy someone cooked up; it's personally insulting. I'm not asking anyone to love bad philosophers, but I would appreciate it if we tried not to be personally insulting to them (or most anyone, but I'll limit the application bco the topic at hand) just bco their bad philosophy. If they kill puppies for fun, then they're fair game for lots of negativity and I want first dibs.
- Finally, and somewhat related to the preceding comment, on what basis do we decide that this nastiness is warranted, acceptable, etc., but that nastiness is not? Or that person A can be as nasty as they wanna be, but not person B?
I won't pretend to be entirely objective about this subject. Personally, I admit, once again, that I am not at all comfortable in the antagonistic style of doing philosophy. To me, philosophy is an intellectual exercise in which I am simply trying to improve my skill and, I hope, come up with something interesting. It is not Gladiator. If I can help someone else in their philosophical (or other) endeavor while I'm at it, I'm happy to be of any use to them. If not, oh well and maybe next time and/or next person. If what I do helps others in some practical way, that would be great. What I will not do is bring down another person. Will I critique others' reasoning? Sure. Will I get personal and nasty about it? I hope not to.