In the corridor or the classroom or the seminar, civility is at least an aspiration – that we speak and listen to each other in a civil manner: it is an aspiration within an existing community – hence the political overtones of the word. Why should we bother? Civility is an attitude displayed in the content of what one says, revealed by tone or linguistic choice, but it is fundamentally an attitude to another person – of taking them seriously, of treating them with respect and care, and without prejudice. This, I take it, matters intrinsically – just because whatever enterprises we are engaged in, we are engaged together. This explains the shock and outrage and the sympathy for its target when civility seems to be cast aside. MM McCabe [at Feministphilosophers]
Among the few great joys of the recent philosophical blogosphere are the contributions by Mary Margaret McCabe, a distinguished philosopher.* Her blog posts are subtle, and she treats her readers like adults; moreover, she practices what she preaches. Even so, I was disappointed by her post because it does not really address known objections to the view that she puts forward. I have in mind, especially, an argument articulated by Johnson and Kazarian in a widely read piece at NewAPPS. In particular, they noted that the demand for "civility" ("collegiality," etc.) is "the sort of requirement that only works, practically speaking, in very homogeneous communities." Even though I think Johnson and Kazarian overstate the homogeneity required, there is no doubt that civility is only possible when a lot of agreement is presupposed. In the class room this agreement is stipulated, but elsewhere it cannot be taken for granted.
Now, McCabe is not naive; her post is worth reading because she is very sensitive to the fragility of civility. As she puts it "civility is [always--ES] under construction." This strikes me as the right stance. Even so, she goes on to claim "but it continues to be an aspiration." Yet, as she notes in the quoted post above, civility presupposes "existing community." The problem is that even professional philosophy is not an existing community and has not pretended to be one in living memory. My own group -- analytical philosophy -- has shown itself systematically willing to be unreceptive to, and frequently dismissive of (etc.) to outsiders (Continental, Feminists, Straussians, cultural theorists, etc.). It would be all wrong to just point to one particular blogger's public persona, and to ignore both the years of complicity of the 'professional haves' in such behavior as well as to overlook the revered role of sneering and putdown in our tradition (and, perhaps, the history of philosophy more generally): from Russell onward (Anscombe, Geach, Carnap, Ernest Nagel, etc.) sneering and the elegant putdown have had a treasured role in the tradition (and others). So, it would be perverse to aspire to something that is probably not possible and, along the way, becomes a club/stick to silence critics and promote (unwanted) conformity without a prior accounting of the role of incivility in the tradition. Indeed, "The future of collaborative discourse is more important than its past," but the very idea that historical trajectory can (largely) be dispensed with is, itself, a move in philosophical history with itself (a problematic) history.
Moreover, a lot of extremely polite and civil folk are not really engaged in "the possibility to speak and to listen together." (In a zero-sum environment [jobs, grants, journal space, etc.] this may be unavoidable.) But civility, as operationalized in certain modes of expression, is not the proper response to polite condescension or the argumentative brush-off nicely formulated. The odd locution of the previous sentence, is partly a consequence of Prof. McCabe's tendency to treat expressions of anger as the contrary to civil behavior.** Sometimes we treat another with respect for their person-hood and care by getting angry at them (ask any parent); we signal that we take their attitudes seriously enough to be willing to signal that they have crossed some line. Finally, sometimes our own person-hood and respect for self demands from us that we get angry at another. Reactive attitudes are an intrinsic part of one's persoon-hood and one of the means toward expressing respect; recognizing their value may well be intrinsic to establishing community. (This is not to deny that due to power differences, the norms of expressing anger may vary with status.) Rather, given the huge potential for abuse that comes with the civility standard, I would wish that we focused more attention on concrete steps at building community and reducing the existing scope of abuses of power.
* See, especially, this piece "Thebes and Gaza."
** In conversation, Amia Srinivasan encouraged reflection on the positive role of anger.