Thursday, March 13, 2014

Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone

As some of you already know, I am also one of the bloggers at NewAPPS.  I'm re-posting here a piece co-authored by Edward Kazaian and I that appeared this past Tuesday on NewAPPS.  It's generated a lot of conversation so far, and I'll have a post forthcoming soon on my take on that conversation.

What follows is the original post, exactly as it appeared on NewAPPS.  The responses by commenters were so immediate and overwhelming that NewAPPS had to open a second (supplemental) discussion thread here.  Both Ed and I, for the most part, were largely uninvolved in the original thread, though we've committed to participating in the supplemental thread. 

Please do NOT revise your tone
[Leigh M. Johnson and Edward Kazarian]

We trust it won’t come as a surprise to NewAPPS readers that the reputation of professional Philosophy has been taking a well-deserved beating in the public sphere.  The really bad press started two years ago with the Vincent Hendricks scandal, gained momentum a year later with the Colin McGinn scandal, and has unleashed its full fury this year with the triplet of scandals at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Northwestern University and Oxford University.  Given the severity—and, in some cases, alleged criminality—of the behaviors reported in these scandals, what IS surprising to us is the turn that recent intra-disciplinary conversations about them has taken.  As two non-tenured professional philosophers, we’re particularly concerned with the new enthusiasm for policing “collegiality” that seems to be emerging in and from these conversations, which in almost every case promotes a norm that we fear only serves to make the vulnerable among us even more vulnerable.

An exemplary instance of how “collegiality” standards can backfire is found in Brian Leiter’s quasi-authoritative “please revise your tone” comment (and more general attitudinal disposition) in this discussion on the Feminist Philosophers blog, followed by his longer a fortiori post  (which he removed from his blog within hours, but which has been preserved here) on the “increasingly ugly cyber-dynamics” of conversations about sexual harassment in the profession. (For the record, we want to note that the sexual harassment problems in our profession are far uglier than the conversational cyber-dynamics in our profession, though it’s really a lose-lose in that determination.)  It is important to take note of the dynamics on display in these threads, which demonstrate more than a little bit of our "climate" problem. Leiter invoked “tone” in reprimanding critics of his position on the issues under discussion and he directed his opprobrium at, among others, a graduate student speaking to the vulnerability she and many of her colleagues feel in a profession with an increasingly well-documented hostile climate for women. Many of the other commenters in the thread, including the post’s author, argued explicitly against attempts to police matters of tone (see comments 10 and 16).

To be precise, we're troubled that insistences on a certain set of normative standards for “collegiality” are regularly being forwarded on behalf of people like us—i.e., colleagues from underrepresented groups in the profession, those with provisional employment, and/or those whose status as stakeholders in the profession is undervalued—presumably in the interest of making the space of professional (philosophical) disagreement friendlier and “safer” for us.  What seems to go largely unacknowledged, if not intentionally ignored, is the manner in which the right to police norms of professional collegiality is a privilege that attends only those for whom running afoul of those standards has no real consequences.  And so, to those attempting to police these standards of collgiality, we want to say: Thanks, but no thanks.

We understand that our objections herein may seem counter-intuitive to many of our colleagues. Collegiality is, after all, widely perceived to be one of the core academic virtues, something to be valued and cultivated as a basic structuring element in our community, perhaps even one of the necessary conditions for the possibility of an academic community.  In order to make room for the intellectual space required for ‘dissent,’ the traditional understanding of collegiality goes, we’re obliged to be (or at the very least, behave like) ‘friends.’

Our contention, however, is that this requirement is excessively regulative in a way that almost inevitably leads to exclusionary results. The rule of ‘collegiality" qua smooth conforming social behavior, "fitting in" in a way that doesn't ruffle feathers, is the sort of requirement that only works, practically speaking, in very homogenous communities. If we may be permitted an analogy, collegiality is like ‘togetherness’ as analyzed by Jane Jacobs in Death and Life of Great American Cities.  There, Jacobs is concerned with how cities can work as communities of “strangers” (she emphasizes that frequently encountering strangers is an inevitable fact of city life, just as it is in our profession), and with how the largely anonymous interactions of sidewalk life might potentially perform a number of positive essential functions, e.g., providing for general safety and contact between people in a neighborhood.  Her discussion of togetherness arises with regard to how otherwise-rare ‘contact’ is handled in the absence of a constant circulation of people on the street, emphasizing that lack of contact is the most frequent outcome in cities.  (To wit, Jacobs’ concerns about the lack of “contact” in city-life reflect the very same concerns that plague professional Philosophy now, namely, that we “philosophers” are joined together in a community only by virtue of a minimal, almost-entirely “professional,”  and increasingly exclusively digital, that is to say, tangential and, at best, entirely impersonal connection.)  But it is Jacobs’ description of the consequences of opting for “togetherness,” in the absence of something that might genuinely constitute togetherness, that are of interest to us here.

Specifically, we’re concerned that Jacobs' claim that “where people do share much, they become exceedingly choosy as to who their neighbors are, or with whom they associate at all,” has come to unfortunately dominate the determination of collegiality within and among professional philosophers.  Jacobs’ analysis elucidates, saliently in our view, that this implicit and unavoidable “choosiness” among and between self-appointed protectors of a community’s “togetherness” makes real diversity not only unwelcome, but nearly impossible to support.  In a passage that is highly resonant with much of the agonizing about ‘fit’ that goes into hiring decisions, as well as the difficulty that many departments—not to mention our discipline as a whole—have with retaining a broadly diverse group of students and faculty, she writes:
People who do not fit happily into such colonies eventually get out, and in time managements become sophisticated in knowing who among applicants will fit in. Along with basic similarities of standards, values and backgrounds, the arrangement seems to demand a formidable amount of forbearance and tact...
City residential planning that depends, for contact among neighbors, on personal sharing of this sort, and    that cultivates it, often does work well socially, if rather narrowly, for self-selected upper-middle-class    people. It solves easy problems for an easy kind of population. So far as I have been able to discover, it    fails to work, however, even on its own terms, with any other kind of population (65).
As an ideal, what a certain formulation of “collegiality”—dominant in recent discussions and exemplified by Brian Leiter’s “please revise your tone” comment at FP—relies upon is an abstract notion of ‘collegiality" that, when implemented among real professional philosophers, requires a common manner, disposition or set of behaviors, even across many important social differences. As a regulative ideal, we do not object to that notion of collegiality.  What we do object to is the mandating of it—because we recognize that, in practice, what is being mandated can only be behaviors that mimic “togetherness” where such togetherness is manifestly not the case.  Members of traditionally privileged groups in academia (tenured, white, straight, cis men chief among them) might experience collegiality as the glue that allows them to “get into it” with one another at a paper presentation, in a department meeting, in print or in the various digital versions of print, and then subsequently wash away any potentially lingering disagreement over a few beers. But members of out-groups do not share in the easy sociality of ‘the guys,’ nor do they share in the personal or professional safety that makes that easy sociality possible. 

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. Those for whom such norms of collegiality do not render benefits will find, as a matter of course, the professional insistence on “collegiality” exponentially more demanding. Indeed, as long as this particular formulation of collegiality remains a professional standard, underrepresented groups will find themselves locked into the false choice between ineffectively participating in hostile spaces (and being called out for their non-allegiance to the rules of collegiality) or, what is often worse, not participating (and consequently being seen as ‘aloof,’ ‘disengaged,’ ‘unprofessional’ or whatever other code for “antisocial” one wishes to cite). The predictable result of this dynamic is just what the comparison with Jacobs’ ‘togetherness’ would lead us to expect, namely, professional Philosophy will continue, as it has for millennia under the guise of good-faith efforts to prevent the same, to drive-out or force-out marginalized and underrepresented groups from the community/conversation in disproportionate numbers.

Some might object that collegiality, these days, is a far less robust standard than we are claiming, that it is really no more than an insistence on some variation of “civility,” a virtue with which it is grouped in the APA Committee for the Status of Women’s Report on the situation at UC-Boulder, for example.  That Site Visit Committee, regrettably charged with offering up an analysis of and practical fixes for what was an all-too-common and fundamentally structural problem, also opted to reinforce (in our view, unfortunately) the “collegiality” norms with which we want to take issue here.   Insisting on “family-friendly” conditions for the possibility of professional interaction, as the UC-Boulder Site Committee’s Report does, may be (at least in UC-Boulder’s case) a marginal improvement on the current conditions the Site Visit Committee was charged with diagnosing, but their diagnosis was not leveled without its own costs, not the least of which is that “family-friendly” is not the measure by which every professional philosopher does (or ought to) judge standards of collegiality.

What is more, even if “collegiality” is interpreted more narrowly and held to bear simply on norms of professional (real, print or digital) conversation, our professional norms of collegiality still tend to stack the deck against anyone expressing a dissenting view.  And, let’s all be honest, what professional Philosophy needs most now, ante omnia, is a norm that welcomes without prejudice the stranger.  Our professional norms for collegiality are typically much harder to satisfy in terms that everyone (especially the target of the “un-collegial” criticism) will agree are collegial. This is especially true, as evidenced in recent conversations by Leiter et al, given how likely it is that our colleagues will take claims that they are being insufficiently sensitive to diversity issues as personal attacks or claim that their critics aren’t being ‘collegial’ (or, as long as collegiality is around as a professional standard, ‘unprofessional’), thus neatly diverting responsibility away from themselves and back onto the person who objected in the first place.

Leiter threw his institutional weight and influence around to attack junior colleagues ("Current Student" and Rachel McKinnon, particularly) by suggesting that they were professionally unsuitable to engage in conversation; he employed the age-old rhetorical strategy of discounting women’s voices by appealing to female hysteria; he insisted that his critics “please revise [their] tone” when he was being called to account for his mendacity; he offered up a left-handed “apology” for his misbehavior by endorsing a bona fide race-baiting analogy to “lynch mobs,” and he did all of this under the guise of calling for justice, fairness and collegiality.  Taken together, this strikes us as a remarkable example of how the “problems” with collegiality, as it is currntly understood and enforcedd by the dominant colleagues in our field, are all too frequently manufactured by them.
To wit, we argue that the structural problems with collegiality standards (and other similar standards, like civility, friendliness, appropriateness, etc.) may be reason enough not to support the unreflective policing of such regulative criteria as those suggested in the Petition to the APA for a “Professional Code of Conduct for Philosophers.”

To summarize our objections, we worry that these standards will: 1) impose a disproportionate burden of changing their behavior to "fit in" on those who are members of out- (that is, underrepresented or minority) groups within the profession; 2) likely be applied disproportionately against those expressing dissenting views or criticizing colleagues for lapses in judgment or perception; and 3) tend to reinforce or provide opportunities to reiterate the structures of privilege and exclusion already operating within the profession.

No one wants to work in a climate of hostility or incivility, of course, least of all those of us for whom such a climate is the most disadvantageous.  We acknowledge that some behaviors can be, ought to be, and in fact are already legislated by extant (college, university and federal) codes of conduct.  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.

Professional philosophy has now found itself, and is being forced to reflect on itself, in the midst of crisis.  Let’s not opt for handing our problems over to (what Kimberle Crenshaw aptly called) the crisis-oriented, neoliberal mode of thinking.  Our objections are not about “personal responsibility”; we’re concerned, primarily, with leveling the playing field and what we hope has become apparent in the above is that the “collegiality” playing-field is not, and has never been, level.

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