'You're wrong.' The case for confrontation

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Author: Joseph Heath
Date: May 12, 2017
From: The Chronicle of Higher Education(Vol. 63, Issue 36)
Publisher: Chronicle of Higher Education, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,929 words
Lexile Measure: 1340L

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I'm starting to think that some of the strange behavior that has been gripping college students in the United States has begun seeping north into Canada, where I teach. For the first time the other day, I came across the suggestion--made by a graduate student--that a philosophical research talk should be a "safe space." The concern was not that department members were abusive, merely that we were sometimes insufficiently "supportive" of the speaker. Apparently we're supposed to find nicer ways of telling people how wrong they are.

The dominant impulse among the professoriate, when confronted with demands of this nature, has been to reject them through appeal to that old stalwart, freedom of speech. It is, after all, not the university's business to go around telling its members what they can and cannot say, or to regulate etiquette. And yet while all of this is true, the defense remains deficient in several respects.

As people who are familiar with how philosophy works will know, it is one of several disciplines that has an adversarial culture. This manifests itself most clearly in the Q&A after a research talk. Basically, after people present their views, the audience tries to tear them apart. Every question is a variation on "Here's why I think you're wrong...." The environment is not supportive; in fact, it is the opposite of supportive. Furthermore, because this is the disciplinary culture, philosophers tend not to preface their comments with ingratiating verbiage like, "First let me thank you for the rich and thought-provoking discussion." Philosophers go straight to the "Here's why I think you're wrong" part.

When being high-minded, we call this the "Socratic elenchus." As the name suggests, it has been around for a very long while. And philosophy is not alone in this--economics and law also have highly adversarial cultures. Philosophy isn't even the most antagonistic. For instance, the disciplinary culture does not tolerate interruption--speakers are given time to make their case, after which we tell them why they're wrong. Economics, as well as many business schools, has an "interrupting" culture, where speakers are given about two minutes to say something, after which they get interrupted and told why they're wrong, or why their methods are flawed, or their research question uninteresting.

So what's with all the unsupportive behavior? And why, despite the protestations of some students, is such a culture worth defending?

First, it is important to distinguish between "being adversarial" and "being a jerk" or "being confrontational." Consider the distinction between philosophy and surgery, a discipline that I happen to know well because my wife is an academic surgeon.

Surgeons are notorious jerks, a tendency that is clearly encouraged by the disciplinary culture. They are also extremely confrontational, sometimes (to me) shockingly so. They lose their temper, swear, and yell at each other a great deal.

At the same time, the disciplinary culture, with respect to research talks,...

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