Critique of Pure Niceness

The trouble with the civility fetish

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Over the past few years—slowly at first through the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown, but especially since the 2016 Trump and Brexit votes—a certain polite consensus has developed. In a world marked by profound, multifaceted, and still-worsening crisis, there is—or so the story goes—one big thing wrong with people, on both the left and the right alike. They are becoming increasingly hardened in their views, increasingly hostile to those who disagree. Amid all the urgency of our political situation, people are becoming unpleasantly, perhaps unsalvageably, uncivil.

Unsurprisingly, the apostles of embattled civility point to social media as one of the big culprits here. In this view of things, the algorithms that filter content for Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and Facebook are prone to produce endlessly recursive “echo chambers”—feedback loops of agreement through which no dissenting views can penetrate. This summer, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey announced in an interview with the Washington Post that he was planning to alter his website’s algorithm in order to promote alternative perspectives on users’ timelines. The idea was to burst social media’s suffocating bubbles of self-congratulation, as well as tackling related problems—such as the rampant proliferation of conspiracy theories and “fake news” across the social mediasphere.

The other big problem we tend to see cited is the intractability and censorious moral certainty of the left. In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle blamed an online left-wing culture of “hysterical” call-outs and “ultra-sensitive” identity politics for driving many young people into the arms of the alt-right. This hypothesis was initially popular among those on the left who objected to a certain sort of puritanical posturing: a recognizable phenomenon, albeit one whose prevalence and influence tends to get wildly overblown. And, naturally, the same claim was then enthusiastically endorsed by Nagle’s more recent fans on the political right. (Tucker Carlson, hello.) Calm down lefties, the argument seems to go, or else we’ll start believing things that you find really foul.

Indeed, a new cohort of sites on the right, such as Quillette, feed off the conviction that the “identitarian” left is—uncivilly—suppressing comment and debate. You can’t say anything anymore without the left telling you you’re a fascist! runs the brunt of a typical Quillette broadside: Disgraced former professors fired from their jobs after multiple accusations of sexual harassment can’t even defend once- respectable pseudosciences like phrenology without woke SJWs getting their gender-neutral underthings in a twist! (Of course, an important pillar of this worldview is the belief that the brave thinkers on the right have “logic, facts, and reason” on their side—so if their counterparts on the left did submit to an honest debate, they’d probably be beaten.)

And so, increasingly, the demand for civility is becoming a moral prescription—civility is seen as something good to aim at in itself—which means, in turn, that your capacity to practice it is a self-evident sign that you are a good person (even—or perhaps especially—if it’s toward a racist teenager on a pro-life march). One recent civility fable confected by our pundit class was a bizarre New York Times article formatted as an exchange between a “lefty,” the Vice writer Eve Peyser, and her conservative friend, the New York Times op-ed section’s most vigilant crusader for the free expression of naked sociopathy, Bari Weiss. The article presents the reader with what is, I suppose, a redemption narrative. At its outset, Weiss is downcast, disillusioned with an online world in which her “contrarian” views on Israel and #MeToo see her coded by the “woke” masses as the “second worst person in the world” (after, of course, Donald Trump). As long as social media divided them, Peyser subscribed to this commonly held view—although she did (she claims) in moments of weakness suspect that “the Bari Weiss cyber outrage was overblown.” When the two met in real life, “every tender thought” Peyser had once dared entertain about Weiss was confirmed.

The implied demand that elites be more civil doubles as the imperative for the rest of us to give elites their due. We’re all human beings, right?

Viewed dispassionately, the article revealed no deeper truth than the fact that two people from similar backgrounds who work in the same industry probably have quite a lot in common—even if they do diverge somewhat on the issue of whether or not Palestinians should have basic rights. But this didn’t stop Peyser and Weiss from laying on the platitudes, congratulating themselves on managing, through their friendship, to overcome “the cruelty of online discourse,” with Peyser claiming that her leftism is “informed by a sense of radical empathy”—including toward people on the political right. “We should live in a country where the military doesn’t wage needless war on other nations and where everyone has equal rights and access to free health care and other social services because, fundamentally, everyone deserves to be treated kindly”—including, I suppose, the people who have dedicated literally their whole lives to lobbying for the military to wage needless war on other nations, and preventing poorer people from getting access to decent health care.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

But suppose we’re not as naturally virtuous as, it seems, Peyser and Weiss are. How can we learn to live more civilly? Well, perhaps we could do a whole lot worse than look to contemporary academic philosophy. True, the academic humanities have been under attack as of late—“revealed” in ruses such as the Quillette-endorsed “Sokal Squared” sting to be bastions of lefty PC groupthink. (“Free speech on campus” is, of course, a key battleground in the civility wars.) But philosophers, who are for the most part always more conservative (in a sort of polite, liberal way) than their colleagues in sociology or comparative literature departments, have been keen to set themselves up as defenders of civility.

To give just a few examples: in October 2018, John Tasioulas, a philosopher of law at King’s College London, wrote on Twitter that: “One thing philosophy teaches you is to respect, and even intensely admire, those you profoundly disagree with. A healthy democracy needs us to become philosophers in this sense.” A month later, superstar philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum, quoting her latest book, the Trump-era-inspired Monarchy of Fear, at a talk at Oxford, claimed that her discipline is about “leading the ‘examined life,’ with humility about how little we really understand, with a commitment to arguments that are rigorous, reciprocal, and sincere, and with a willingness to listen to others.” The uncivil life, perhaps, is not worth living.

Jason Stanley, a prominent philosophy professor at Yale who has written frequently for the New York Times, has been on a similar trip for a while. His 2015 book How Propaganda Works—which has proved that rare thing in philosophy, a crossover hit—forcefully posits that the problem with the title concept is that, as “speech that irrationally closes off certain options that should be considered,” propaganda feeds off—and can perpetuate—what Stanley calls “flawed ideologies”—ideologies that work to “prevent us from gaining knowledge about features of reality, including social reality.”

Mark Fisher’s writings, at their best, contain a powerful argument—which can be used to separate what is rational from what is “reasonable.”

Thus according to Stanley, “those with control of resources” will tend to develop flawed ideologies associated with their own inherent superiority, justifying their perceived greater worth or deserts. Conversely, those who lack control of resources will develop flawed ideologies associated with their felt inferiority. These ideologies often act insidiously: the people who hold them do not realize that their beliefs represent anything other than objective good sense. Over time, flawed ideologies can become deeply entrenched: people in particular have a vested interest in defending myths of inherent superiority, especially when they are threatened. (Just look, for example, at how people on the right tend to kick back against even the slightest perceived transgressions against white supremacy or patriarchy: over in Britain this January we had a major days-long controversy about a bakery chain launching a line of vegan sausage rolls.)

Flawed ideologies thus serve to undermine the values that (according to Stanley) are associated most strongly with liberal democracy, producing the sort of divided—and divisive—political communities in which demagogues like Trump (and Hitler, and Mussolini, and Putin) are able to flourish. As his recent How Fascism Works—which is a sort of popularization and simplification of the ideas pursued in the earlier propaganda book—makes clear, Stanley thinks that “the most telling symptom of fascist politics is division. It aims to separate a population into an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’”

Be Reasonable!

What divided polities lack in particular is the normative ideal of public reason that Stanley—following that great systematizer of the unguarded assumptions of well-off American liberals, John Rawls—calls “reasonableness.” “A democratic culture,” Stanley tells us, “is one in which citizens assume that their fellow citizens have good reasons for acting as they do.” Reasonableness thus “requires any contribution to political discussion, for example, in the form of a proposed policy, to be ‘justifiable’ to all those under whose purview it falls.” Democracies are supposed to allow their citizens to pursue “diverse reasonable perspectives.” But flawed ideologies can represent certain groups as being beyond the scope of reason; and even when they don’t, these ideologies can represent certain injustices as being beyond the possibility of reform. The propaganda associated with these ideologies can be used to shut debate down, or else make otherwise unreasonable positions look perfectly reasonable in the context of a given debate.

It’s not hard to see how this sort of pathology of public reason has helped—and is continuing to help—perpetuate all sorts of horrors, especially those associated with the state oppression of minority groups. There are aspects of our (ostensibly) democratic culture that even the most cursory examination would reveal to be deeply broken, that simply have to change—and in many cases, must do so very urgently. But the implication that the corrective to systematic unreasonableness is, as it were, more reasonableness, strikes me as rather naïve.

It would be, yes, absolutely fantastic if the wealthy could just sort of cast off their various myths of inherent worth and help us all march together toward a more just world. But even leaving the implausibility of that scenario aside, it must be pointed out that equality, by its very nature, cuts both ways. Thus the implied demand that elites be more civil doubles as the imperative for the rest of us to give elites their due. We’re all human beings, right? (In addition, of course, it’s pretty convenient for rich white people to realize this only after several centuries of failing to do so furnished them with a ready excuse to take everyone else’s stuff—but hey, reasonable and civil folks let bygones be bygones.)

While gender critical feminist philosophers may not seem inclined to extend the principles of civility to their opponents, they certainly want to see it extended wholesale to themselves.

But what on earth would be the point of insisting that—say—an oil executive, whose business and personal advancement are bound up in the ongoing destruction of the planet, probably has a good reason for behaving the way he (and yes, it will almost certainly be a “he”) does? Why on earth should anyone take the time to listen to the various perceived grievances and disguised bigotries that this person would no doubt cite in order to justify his position? What’s the point of acknowledging our shared humanity with someone whose very existence compromises our survival as a species? According to Stanley, the key problem with “flawed ideologies” is that they prevent us from seeing how reality (including social reality) really is. Given everything, why shouldn’t we suppose that the current moral fetish of civility is just such a flawed ideology?

Good Dogma

Mark Fisher held a PhD in philosophy, but that didn’t mean he had all that much in common with his academic contemporaries. “My relation to the academy has always been uh difficult,” he wrote in a reflective 2005 piece called “Why K?”, included as a preface to the new k-punk collection of his writings. “Most dealings with the academy have been literally—clinically—depressing.” In “Why K?” Fisher mentions his way of engaging with theory—primarily through popular culture, as opposed to the rigorous discipline of academic scholarship—as the main source of division. But he could also have cited his approach to divisions and debate as such.

Early blog posts included in the k-punk collection see Fisher raging against his own comments section. “Please note: feminazis, cult studs guilt mongers, passive consumer-whingers, ‘friends’ who occupy the moral high ground, misanthropes, gliberals, stoner pacifists, therapy-pushers. . . . Only comments deemed to be positive by the Kollektive will be left up.” “Do you feel alienated by this? Good. And goodbye, then. . . . We are not here to entertain you.”

These early pieces often display a sort of brattish misanthropy, peppered with a nineties-ish cyber-jargon that I’m sure must have seemed outmoded even then—presumably a hangover from Fisher’s time at the University of Warwick studying under “theory-fiction” pioneer (and future “Dark Enlightenment” guru) Nick Land. But at their best, they contain a powerful argument—which can be used to separate what is rational from what is “reasonable.”

In a 2005 post entitled “We dogmatists,” Fisher systematizes his objections to what he sees as the liberal ideal of “debate.” “No, I am not tolerant,” he writes, “I don’t respect you, nor do I solicit such respect for myself from you. The defenders of tolerance, debate, dialogue and respect advertise their bourgeois credentials with such advocacy. I’m sorry, apologists for the exploitation of labour, but, no, I don’t see it as my duty to provide the enemy with a space to express itself. You already have the global videodrome, the judiciary, the police, the psychiatric establishment and the most powerful armies of the world on your side.”

In contrast to his liberal opponents, Fisher proclaims himself to be a “dogmatist.” In Fisher’s understanding, dogmatism—which fellow philosophy buffs will recognize as the term Kant used to smear rationalist philosophers like Spinoza and Leibniz—entails “commitment to the view that there are Truths. One can add to this, the view that there is a Good.” Since Kant, Fisher notes, dogmatism (and rationalism) has been associated often with authoritarianism—it is distinguished by the assertion of undefended, perhaps indefensible Truths, forgoing the basic liberal assumption that we ought always in our thinking defer to what Jürgen Habermas called “the forceless force of the better argument.”

But in fact, Fisher argues, this smear couldn’t be further from the Truth—given how things are at present, dogmatism is “the only effective alternative” to authoritarianism. Fisher’s target in “We dogmatists” is a Derridian “postmodern relativism” that refuses to arbitrate between “the different ethical and ontological claims of ‘incommensurate’ ‘language games.’” While this brand of jargon-laden hermeneutics may bear some superficial resemblance to what we’ve wearily come to know as “post-truth politics,” it’s also a bit of a Third Way-era boogeyman—the sort of thing Slavoj Žižek was warning us lurks behind the smooth grins of a Blair or a Clinton in the various documentaries he fronted in the early 2000s.

Still, Fisher’s broader point here can be adapted to contemporary conditions. It’s clear that the demand for civility—as a piece of flawed ideology—often functions as a way of shutting people up, of shutting argument down. The force of all sorts of grievances can become lost in the demand to treat “even those we profoundly disagree with” with respect. Bigotries are liable to be given air, via the reasonable-sounding demand that we give the bigoted a platform from which we (and, by extension, anyone else) are able to listen to them.

In contrast to empty-headed relativism, Fisher’s dogmatic rationalism proceeds from a series of explicitly stateable axioms or principles—something like Marx’s theory of history might be cited as a “good” form of dogmatism in this sense. The intentions of dogmatists are, therefore, always clear: they live according to, and will argue in line with, the tenets they espouse. For this reason, the dogmatist is unyielding. “Dogmatism,” Fisher claims, “is religion in the best sense”—it entails the subordination of the self to an impersonal system. Dogmatists, therefore, are not likely to be swayed by the shallow advantage of temporal self-interest; they will not sentimentally cling to inherited assumptions about their race or their class.

Finally, Fisher claims, dogmatism is “pragmatic”—it knows what its goals are, and it is likewise able to distinguish those goals from the manner in which they are achieved. The dogmatist has no patience for the delusion that we ought to act civilly toward our opponents in the here-and-now, because this is how we’d like everyone to be treated in some ideal future: the dogmatist would not see any need to extend to bigots or robber barons the same charity that they would to their comrades.

TERF Wars

But perhaps we ought to be wary of invoking this sort of divisive, even religiously minded, certainty as an antidote to the current fetish for civility. Even within academic philosophy, there would appear to be ample evidence that open incivility is likely to produce a discourse that is far, far worse.

Certainly not all academic philosophers are politely liberal defenders of tolerance. Recently, a small but vocal minority of philosophers have taken it upon themselves to defend a view that, it seems, they strongly feel is right—and to hell with anyone who sees things differently. Faced with an alleged PC consensus that proclaims the right of trans women to identify as women, and trans men to identify as men, these scholars have adopted a position they call “gender critical feminism.” They’ve become known to their detractors as “trans-exclusionary radical feminists” (TERFs). In short: they think that sex is a matter of biology, not a “social construction”; they also believe that the interests of cis and trans women can radically diverge—so much so, indeed, that they contend that giving trans women access to women’s spaces often, if not always, constitutes a physical threat. (Trans men, by contrast, are usually just “misguided” lesbians forced to transition by the woke mainstream.) For obvious reasons, people with gender critical views are often accused of being transphobic.

This brand of feminism can be found throughout the academy. A recent letter published in the Guardian, complaining that British researchers with gender critical views were being silenced by “campus protests, calls for dismissal in the press, harassment, foiled plots to bring about dismissal, no-platforming, and attempts to censor academic research and publications,” was signed by fifty-five academics. The petition’s signatories represent disciplines as diverse as art history, sociology, and computer science. But nearly one-fifth of them were either philosophers or political theorists—a number hugely out of proportion with the relatively small size of these disciplines in the UK.

Heading the list of names was Kathleen Stock, philosophy professor at the University of Sussex. For most of her career, Stock had been a fairly quiet figure, working in the niche area of analytic aesthetics. (Her signature position is that the meaning of literary works is just . . . exactly what their authors intended the meaning to be; sorry 1968, but the author is very much alive.) But then, in mid-2018, Stock starting publishing blog posts in support of—among other things—the view that gender should not be considered a matter of self-identification. As a result, she has risen quickly to become one of the most prominent figures in the gender critical movement. Among academic philosophers, her position has found a powerful ally in Brian Leiter, Professor of Law and Philosophy at Chicago and the founder of Leiter Reports, one of the discipline’s two most prominent blogs.

Civility for Me But Not for Thee

In part, Stock’s prominence is a matter of notoriety. Although Stock herself insists that she is not transphobic, and that she intends her interventions to be considered and respectful, her style—particularly on social media—is characterized by an often aggressive forthrightness. Certainly, Stock is not above clashing with undergraduate or postgraduate students—people who, regardless of institutional affiliation, might well consider her to occupy a position of authority over them. Here, for example, is one tweet, sent to an undergraduate philosophy student last summer, concerning a controversy over the editor of a student journal at Durham who’d been forced to resign after sharing a transphobic tweet: “Your overconfidence about the rectitude of your own moral views, your lack of an extension of the principle of charity to your interlocutor, and your oversimplification of the notion of bigotry, are all out of place in the philosophical discipline.” Stock might complain about threats of dismissal, but clearly she is not above drumming anyone else out of the philosophical regiment. Her cheerleader Leiter does this too: within the past year, he has picked fights on his blog with more than one graduate student who disagrees with him on “gender critical” issues, smearing them to his readers as self-pitying, intolerant narcissists; peppering his attacks with childish snippets of gossip. The implication is very much: cross me, disagree with me if you like—but good luck ever getting a job in this town if you do.

Following Kant, we can identify at least two examples of things that look like they might involve thinking, but are in truth just a flawed imitation of it—a kind of pseudothinking.

Perhaps if we abandon civility for dogmatism, then this is all we’re really likely to end up with: not a liberating, anti-authoritarian rationalism immune from, or transcendent of, the demand for debate—but simply the unchecked right of the already powerful to ride roughshod over anyone who disagrees.

But on closer inspection, the relationship of gender critical feminist philosophers to civility is a bit more complicated than that. While they may not seem inclined to extend the principle of civil interlocutorship to their opponents, they certainly want to see it extended wholesale to themselves. Fisher claimed he didn’t want respect: but the gender critical academy does. The Guardian letter was testament enough to this—a group of people who mostly already had full-time and tenured academic jobs, writing into the newspaper to code disagreement as censorship, protest of their views as personal attack.

Meanwhile, a guest post on Daily Nous (the other big philosophy blog, alongside Leiter Reports) took umbrage at a piece written by trans woman philosopher Rachel McKinnon in which (during, as it happens, a symposium on Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works) she used the TERF acronym—a coinage that gender critical feminists often insist is a “slur.” This is largely because it has been employed—and forcefully so at times—by trans opponents of their views: people who, to be clear, comprise a marginalized group who might understandably feel threatened by the implications of gender critical arguments. The civility fetish remains—but only as a way of policing other peoples’ language. And so, while continuing to march under the umbrella of civility, cringing equivocation gives way to rampant self-assertion.

Open Minds and Empty Minds

Is there any other way? In “We dogmatists,” one of Fisher’s main opponents is Kant. After all, it was Kant who originated the “dogmatism is authoritarian” smear. But it would be wrong to suggest that Kant’s thought is thoroughly or even mostly anti-rationalistic. In fact, it is more plausible to read Kant’s most important work, the Critique of Pure Reason, as an attempt to curb rationalism’s excesses, to set it on more than simply arbitrary foundations. Perhaps a Kantian insight can do the same for dogmatism here.

At one point in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant tells us that “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” “Our knowledge,” he explains, “springs from two fundamental sources of the mind; the first is the capacity of receiving representations . . . the second is the power of knowing an object through these impressions.” “Through the first,” he says, “an object is given to us, through the second the object is thought in relation to that [given] representation . . . intuition and concepts constitute, therefore, the elements of all our knowledge, so that neither concepts without an intuition in some way corresponding to them, nor intuition without concepts, can yield knowledge.”

This might all sound like typically boring, confusing Kant-speak: the dry dust of quite possibly the single deadest and whitest Dead White Guy ever to be white, write books, and die. But Kant’s point here is of more than merely academic weight. What we learn from this passage is that reason extends, as it were, in two directions. On the one hand: when we reason or think, what is important is not, simply, that we are engaged in doing thinky-type things—that we make a big show of employing a particular method, or even of taking in views from all sides. In order to yield knowledge, thinking must be directed at some object, and likewise must aim at doing justice to that object.

“Thoughts without content are empty”—knowledge never spins frictionless from the pressing, material concerns of the reality we knowers necessarily exist in. Real thinking, then, is the product of material interests, which will remain even in the context of a maximally even-handed debate. Hume—one of the key non-rationalist influences on Kant’s thought—insisted for similar reasons that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” But Kant does not follow Hume in reaching this conclusion—because he also thinks that the passions can and should be subjected to the demands of reason. For Kant, it is not enough to experience something as being in, for instance, your material interests.

“Intuitions without concepts are blind”—in order for our interests to be realized, and in fact, in order for us to know what our interests even are, we need to be able to hold them up to critical scrutiny. Otherwise, we end up being shoved around by what could well be a mistaken impression of how things merely are.

So where does all this leave us? Well, it seems that, following Kant, we can identify at least two examples of things that look like they might involve thinking, but are in truth just a flawed imitation of it—pseudothinking, if you will.

One the one hand, we have an activity that goes through all the motions of thinking, but is not sufficiently related to any determinate object or interest. On the other, we have an activity that does have a particular interest in mind, but is not sufficiently reflective on its own foundations. Given what I’ve written thus far, it should be obvious what sort of examples I have in mind here: who is failing, for instance, to function as an ideal thinking subject.

Both these modes of pseudothought seem open to misuses of—or by—our present fetish for civility. The first will seek to extend civility to everyone, and lose itself in the process; the second will police any attempt to scrutinize it, by demanding an excess of civility for itself.

Combating the civility fetish, then, does not simply mean giving way wholesale to rudeness and anger. Our thinking must be guided by material interest, but not in the name of self-assertion. We must instead seek real understanding, of our own position as well as everyone else’s. Only then can our thinking result, per Kant’s considerations, in knowledge. To our opponents, we must extend a deeper sort of charity than mere politeness—a charity strong enough to consider that there might be some instances in which, given everyone else’s interests, certain people’s views simply do place them beyond the moral pale, a place from which no direct argument can draw them back.

Over against these kinds of hermeneutic demands, civility-for-civility’s sake is little more than a pantomime of genuine moral inquiry. If civility can still be considered any sort of virtue, it must be a very shallow one. And the urgency of our present situation plainly demands a better public than one that is merely civil.

Tom Whyman is an academic philosopher and freelance writer from the United Kingdom.

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