Being Nicer Won't Save Us

Right now I’m reading Generous Thinking by Kathleen Fitzpatrick. (link) It’s an interesting, challenging book. Fitzpatrick’s thesis is that the crises faced by academia can be mitigated to a greater or lesser degree by what she calls “generous thinking” directed both inward and outward. Academics are generally too exclusionary, too insular, too jargony. In response, she believes that we should adopt more expansive and comradely modes of communication. A great example of how academic philosophers, for instance, separate themselves from the rest of the world is how often we take seriously a deep distinction between “the folk” and “experts” in the content and evidential value of our various ethical or epistemic or metaphysical intuitions. Fitzpatrick isn’t writing as a philosopher or to philosophers specifically, but a lot of what she says resonates strongly with my own experience in academic philosophy. She acknowledges that thinking and communicating generously won’t fix everything but, in her view, it’s the best way forward.

Earlier this week C. Thi Nguyen writing at the Daily Nous presented five ideas for improving the public face of philosophy. The first two of these are “Be charitable” and “Be supportive.” Nguyen says that in public philosophy we ought to tone down the mode of combative discourse we typically engage in. Instead, our aim should be “to demonstrate in public the qualities of good critical conversation.”

I agree with both Fitzpatrick and Nguyen that academia, and academic philosophy in particular, is massively uncharitable and unkind. It’s a real problem that effects exploited people worst of all. There are bad actors in philosophy that deserve scorn and, in some cases, outright banishment. This is a serious problem that deserves attention and remediation. Before I say anything else, I want to be very clear that I think Fitzpatrick’s and Nguyen’s diagnoses are absolutely correct. But here’s the problem: I don’t think that being nicer will save us.

My concern is that academics instructing academics to be nicer and more charitable to one another and to our larger community won’t be enough. Not because academics won’t listen, but because even if we wake up tomorrow and are instantly kinder, more generous, more supportive, and more inclusive the crises we face will roll over us just as hard. I’m concerned that these calls amount to calls for civility and a return to polite norms in the face of rising fascism and ecological collapse.

In the interest of being charitable I don’t think that Nguyen or Fitzpatrick is suggesting we be kinder without supporting that kindness with real action, even real political organizing and power building. I reckon they’re serious about what it means to be kind and generous and supportive and that just being a little more congenial in how we talk to one another isn’t what they have in mind.

But I think that to have a shot at saving the good parts of the educational institutions we have requires us to pick a side and declare an enemy, and doing that isn’t always generous or charitable or kind. We have to infuse our charity with solidarity and our kindness with determination. We have to build, not just critique, even if that critique is presented with genuine care. Of course, there is an incredible kindness involved in tearing down walls and putting your life on the line defending others, so these aren’t mutually exclusive.

I think the main complaint I have with this line of argument is that for people who aren’t in positions of power and authority within the established institutions, being more charitable or generous especially won’t save us from a system that actively does us harm. There’s a kind of passive pacifism at the root of giving this kind of advice to disempowered people: be gentler, give more of yourself, the meek will inherit the Earth, etc. I just don’t see any reason to believe that justice is inevitable.

- - -

Photo by Robert Baker on Unsplash