Fuck Civility

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

This piece starts in the clichéd way that many ‘shock columns’ do:

Fuck civility. There. I said it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a valuable place for some form of civility, if by civility you mean a respect for the voice and experiences of others. If used correctly, it can enable the flourishing of all. Let’s not kid ourselves though: civility is a form of censorship. Not necessarily a bad form, but a form nonetheless. The problem is the misuse of civility, because often the reasonable response is not to treat an argument or speech act dispassionately. A dispassionate response can be bordering on ignorant. In these circumstances, only anger and outrage seem appropriate. The current norms of civility penalise petty swearing whilst ignoring the legitimisation of bigotry.

Let me give you some examples of where you might think anger is justified, but penalised under the current norms. All of these examples are taken from real stories I’ve been told in my past decade studying philosophy.

  1. You’re a young black woman, starting an undergraduate degree in philosophy. You’re taught about the ‘great philosophers’, all of which are white and male. You learn independently of the great work that black and female philosophers have done (perhaps via Diversity Reading List) and notice their absence from the accepted canon. What do you do? If you stay silent and accept the status quo, it could leave you feeling alienated from philosophy, feeling ‘it’s not for me’. If you buck civility and react with anger or even a small amount of critique, you risk being identified with the problem, being perceived as the problem, falling into age-old stereotypes of the ‘angry black woman’ that will work against you.

  2. You have a disability, perhaps a mobility issue. Having an interest in a career in academia, you recognise the importance of attending and contributing to events such as conferences or symposia to develop professionally. But most of these events fail to offer details about venues and travel plans up front alongside their Calls for Abstracts or Papers (sometimes even their Calls of Registration). The onus is on you to badger the organisers for information they probably have not yet confirmed, nor even thought about. Without this information, you cannot guarantee your participation in the event, even if you’re accepted as speaker. What do you do? If you accept the status quo, you risk wasting a huge amount of time expending energy for events that cannot and will not accommodate you, risking the stigma of pulling out of the event(s) last minute. If you buck civility and react with anger or even a small amount of critique, you risk being identified with the problem, being perceived as the problem.

  3. You’re a working class 17 year old thinking about applying to university. You don’t pronounce words in a way normalised in the media or the academy, and you might use a swear word to express your anger even in so-called ‘polite company’ (or, as I do, whenever one might reasonably fit in a sentence.) You’ve grown up online and have definitely reacted badly on occasion (with evidence permanently archived.) You’re interested in philosophy, but you see several prominent philosophers agreeing that it’s a good idea that universities can use archived social media posts to determine who can attend their courses. What do you do? If you accept the status quo, there are three different outcomes: you feel that university is not for you, you feel that philosophy is not for you and choose another discipline, or you learn to codeswitch (i.e., adopt more middle-class modes of behaviour) in ‘polite company’ and hope for the best. If you buck civility and react with anger or even a small amount of critique, the thought is: what university’s going to accept you?

Now imagine that you’re a black, working class, transgender woman with a mobility issue. Your first language is not English, and you’re attracted to other women. How much do you think it’s reasonable to put up with before rejecting a system that (implicitly or explicitly) rejects you? We shouldn’t be asking anyone to put up with this.

These stories show real structural barriers that can result from what you might see as minor or unimportant decisions or norms. In this, it’s important to note four things that make this problem far more insidious.

First, these experiences are not unique. You do not hear these stories for the same reason that they happen – because saying something under the current norms of civility makes people perceive you as the problem. In and around philosophy, there is the silence of thousands of missing voices.

Second, these stories are by no means the most serious I could have picked. I’ve heard of racial slurs being used in seminars or conferences with no challenge. I’ve heard of actual abuses of power. I’ve attended a conference on International Women’s Day that ended with an all-male panel. And then there’s the acute problem of marginalised invisibility and belittling. Instead, the stories I have chosen are demonstrative of the fact that even if we do sort the obvious problems, we still won’t be where we need to be. We won’t be in a situation where a diverse set of people are encouraged to pursue philosophy and treated with equity (respecting the injustices committed against them) in a thriving, pluralistic academic philosophy.

Third, these stories do not include the structural barriers beyond the academy that contribute to these injustices. You might think that we are bound to inaction because these are merely expressions of wider societal problems, bigger than we can tackle. But we can directly tackle them within the discipline. And that a coalition needs to reach beyond academia to tackle these problems en masse is not an excuse for inaction. It is a reason to do that reaching.

Finally, this is not the first plea of its kind, nor will it be the last. It's part of a wider literature that explores this phenomenon in much more detail. Amia Srinivasan has written some great pieces lately that draw attention to this and similar issues (see here and here). No doubt there are countless others. Yet those in positions of seniority in philosophy seem to be ignoring these pleas.

It’s clear that by encouraging the continuation of the current norms of civility, whether explicitly or by silent assent, we are discouraging or actively preventing dissent and the improvement of the academic environment for everyone. We are saying to those disadvantaged by the status quo: you don’t belong here. If we want to change, we need a new measure. I suggest a simple one: Don’t Be An Asshole. But there are others, and we need to change collectively. This is the beginning of real change, not the end.

Given this is me bucking civility by reacting with anger and a small measure of critique, I recognise that I may become identified with the problem. I may be seen as the problem. But I have relative privilege. If I can’t risk this, why should we expect those more affected to risk themselves for a discipline and an academy that isn’t listening?

John Parry is a MAP UK Co-Director and PhD student at the University of Leeds. He’s particularly interested in public philosophy, philosophy for children (P4C), routes into academia and how ECR working conditions affect retention across demographics. Pronouns: he/him.


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