Tuesday, July 08, 2014

On Trigger Warnings, Codes of Conduct and Self-Policing in Philosophy

The blogosphere has been all abuzz with commentary on the merits and demerits of “trigger warnings” (henceforth, TWs) of late, which has sparked an interesting conversation not only about what sorts of norms we ought to strive for in the Academy but also how we can or ought police those norms. With regard to TWs specifically, the debate seems to be over how much accommodation should be afforded to individual students’ personal (sometimes traumatic) experiences and, correspondingly, how to weigh that accommodation vis-à-vis professorial interest in and responsibility for maintaining the academic integrity of course-content. As is the case with many other issues of this kind, disputants are largely divided along philosophical/ideological lines: those who tend to prioritize individual responsibility and accountability (e.g., Jack Halberstam) on the one side and, on the other side, those who advocate a more cooperative/communal sense of self-care (e.g., Angus Johnston). Two quick disclaimers before we get into things, though: (1) I'll concede that I've just employed grossly-generalized characterizations of the two sides, and (2) those generalizations are also non-comprehensive, as they leave out an important third category of disputants (see Natalie Cecire's recent contribution) in the TW controversy, namely, those who are helpfully and productively engaging in meta-critique, who recognize the limitations of both dominant “positions” in this conversation and who are interested in articulating how those positions are both mutually-implicating and mutually-contaminating.


 As someone who almost exclusively teaches courses in moral and political philosophy—that is to say, someone whose bread and butter is trigger-prone course material—I find myself genuinely torn about my own position on TWs. I include something like a TW on all of my syllabi as a part of my “Dr. J's Rules” syllabus-supplement... but my TW is very broad and generic, and it is aimed more at establishing a discursive ethos for the classroom than it is at “warning” students that some of the course-content may trigger psychological distress. (You can read my version here. It’s Rule #7.) Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I’d have to admit that I find myself dispositionally disinclined to “coddle” students as a rule, which sometimes results in my mistaking legitimate accommodation for over-accommodation. I don’t think I’m alone in that attitude. For better or worse, I think it’s a generational prejudice, but that's a topic for another day.  My interest here is not to weigh in on TWs specifically, but rather to say something about the manner in which the controversy over mandating TWs—making them an official or unofficial rule, an “ought,” that is to say, giving them normative heft or leverage—reflects a broader trend in academia (and, more problematically, in my discipline of Philosophy) that I find worrisome.

Let me just air the dirty laundry here at the start: professional philosophers are perhaps the sine qua non case when it comes to Groups Desperately In Need of Corrective Disciplining.  And, so far at least, we've been downright awful at policing ourselves.

At present, the professional organization for philosophers (the American Philosophical Association) is considering whether or not to devise and implement an official Code of Conduct for its constituents. The APA decided to do so for a number of very good reasons, not the least of which is three consecutive years of increasingly terrible behavior by and increasingly embarrassing press coverage of professional philosophers, but more directly in response to a petition (initiated by Drs. Eleonore Stump and Helen De Cruz and co-signed by 673 supporters) for some statement of ethical norms APA members might expect to govern our collective. Despite my genuine sympathy with this initiative, I’ve been critical of implementing an APA Code of Conduct for a number of reasons.  In fact, my colleague Dr. Ed Kazarian and I co-authored a piece on the newAPPS blog a few months ago entitled “Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone,” articulating some of our concerns with codifying what are in effect professional/cultural norms and, more to the point, our objection to enforcing codified cultural norms.  Our worry, as we explained on newAPPS, is that there are many good reasons to believe that Codes of Conduct for professional behavior are likely to legitimate and reinforce, rather than govern or correct, the behavior-patterns of those with the most influence and power in our discipline/profession.  Inasmuch as the behavior-patterns in Philosophy (as in academia more broadly) most in need of correction tend to reflect structural and systemic  problems—racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism and ableism most generally and, more specifically, also a number of historically-sedimented ideological prejudices about what and who counts as “real” scholarship and scholars—it is hard to see how a Code of Conduct could be an effective remedy.  Codes of Conduct aim to regulate the behaviors of individual agents within communities, on the basis of norms determined (in the ideal) by that community.  What they do not do, and cannot do, is regulate the norms by which communities determine their codes of behavior, nor to they regulate how the "determiners" of those determinations are determined.

There's the rub, really.  Especially in professional Philosophy—one of the Whitest and most Male-dominated academic disciplines in U.S. higher education, woefully backward in terms of inclusion, belligerently resistant to change, internally at war with itself, small and elite enough to be particularly susceptible to oligarchism and yet, at the same time, thoroughly persuaded of its own indispensable merit—there is good reason to be suspect of its efforts at self-policing.

For those of us who still count ourselves (however problematically) among the advocates of classical liberalism, of the fundamental principles of limited government, of democracy and of the rule of law, the separation of powers is perhaps the preeminent Virtue.  It comes down to this, really: those who make the law ought not also be invested with the power to enforce the law, even less so with the power to interpret the law.  Regular readers of this blog no doubt already know that I count myself among the advocates of classical liberalism, but let the record reflect that I also count myself among its many critics, who are painfully cognizant of the ways in which a reductive commitment to neutrality, impartiality and meritocracy deafens one to the sorts of critical (and critically important) voices that never seem to even get a seat at the table. (See my comment on Eric Schleisser's smart and excellent post "On a Code of Conduct in Philosophy" on his consistently smart and excellent blog Digressions&Impressions.) For both of those reasons, I mistrust "self-policing" and for both of those (pro- and anti-classical liberalism) reasons, I'm deeply concerned by academia's (and Philosophy's) confidence that it can effectively self-police.

I'm much more comfortable saying that I oppose the APA's current initiative to institute a Code of Conduct for professional philosophers than I am saying that I oppose mandating trigger warnings on course syllabi, but I don't think my concerns with respect to the two are unrelated.  The sorts of cultural norms that, when challenged, make calls for self-policing necessary are the same norms than make the call for self-policing inadvisable, in my view.  That is to say, if the "self" that self-polices is the same "self" that is being policed, I'm not sure that we can reasonably expect that policing to amount to much more than: Move along, now.  There's nothing to see here.

On the other hand, if we insist instead that the fundamentally structural/systemic errors, which continue to generate, regenerate and reproduce academia's blind-spots and which make its BAU operations more and more distasteful, aren't really a matter for more and better police--or, as I think Robin James et al have rightly noted, a matter for determinations by what I call the "Neoliberal Triple-A" (adjusters, accountants and actuaries)-- then maybe, just maybe, we can start to wean ourselves from the European Enlightenment teat enough to actually start being progressive, instead of just being liberal.

1 comment:

Adriel Trott said...

Leigh, thanks for this. I just wanted to quibble with this line:
"The APA decided to do so for a number of very good reasons, not the least of which is three consecutive years of increasingly terrible behavior by and increasingly embarrassing press coverage of professional philosophers."
I think it is important to say that this behavior is being acknowledged and criticized but I'm not sure it is increasing or increasingly terrible. Maybe it is, I don't have any data. But I think what we are experiencing is the growing willingness of people to speak up about it. Initially it looks like the behavior is getting worse, but I think the behavior is coming to light and being disciplined.

I'm linking to you on my blogpost today.