A spate of blog posts in the past week have focused on issues of academic online civility and community: Kathleen Fitzpatrick‘s “If You Can’t Say Anything Nice” (25 Jan), my response “If You Can’t Hear Anything Nice,” her response “Disagreement,” my response “Behave, Listen Well, and Design for Liberality,” Dan Cohen‘s “The Sidewalk Life of Successful Communities,” Ryan Cordell‘s “Mea Culpa: on Conference Tweeting, Politeness, and Community Building,” Tressie McMillan Cottom‘s “What’s In A Name?“, Lee Bessette‘s “Twitter Controversies,” Roger T. Whitson‘s “Twitter Bully,” etc.
Generally, commentators are focused on the problems of unacceptable or inappropropriate public shaming, disrespectful critique or “quick complaint.” I don’t condone such things, but would like to add the observation that responding to perceived incivility or social inappropriateness too absolutely or zealously has perils of its own. Intellectual inquiry has to steer carefully and self-critically between many pitfalls and dead-ends, including not only incivility but also insularity, like-mindedness, and an unwilllingness to engage with difficult speech or conflicting norms. This is admittedly a difficult project, continually beset by the enclosing aspects of our habits, our cognitive biases, our disciplines and our institutions. But in that regard, academics and intellectuals are, or should be, like Avis: we try harder.