Drawing on helpful facebook discussions in the wake of yesterday’s post, I now think there are at least three (pernicious) versions of the perceived connection between being a ‘real’ philosopher and social norm violation.
- First, we have a tendency to excuse systematic social norm violations in (successful!) (male!) philosophers, taking them as adorable quirks that go with the territory of being a ‘true intellectual.’ You hear people saying that “all philosophers are a little Aspergers-y.” (Why that’s problematic is worth a post of its own.) We admiringly comment on some famous dude’s inability to button his shirt straight or brush his hair. We proudly find it adorable that many of our own can be mistaken for hobos.
- Second, philosophers will cultivate their own tendency to violate social norms and conventions that apply to others and to cross boundaries, taking this as some sort of performance of their intellectual hipness and depth. This I’ve already discussed and we have all seen it on display.
- Third, we put pressure on new philosophers to join in on the norm-violating culture of the discipline. This can make people feel like they have to use profane language, push sexual boundaries, avoid the appearance of concern with their looks, etc., in order to earn their place in the philosophical community. Many of us remember the letter of recommendation that made the rounds this year, in which the writer said that he associates philosophical ability with lack of concern for personal appearance, and hence found a student’s high quality surprising since she was pretty and ‘well-groomed’.
The problem with all of this (or one of the many problems) is, again, that it comes at the cost of the most vulnerable members of the profession - those likely to be the targets of the boundary-violations and judgmental expectations rather than their instigators. Likewise it leaves us with no recourse when we feel violated. If we complain, we are just not understanding how to be a cool philosopher, or we are not intellectual enough to get the joke. It also generally puts women, people of color, and other disciplinary minorities in a different kind of impossible position: we can’t get away with the hobo look without repercussions, but we also get dismissed if we look like we care about social conventions (please extend the synecdoche as needed).
Of course, as philosophers, our commitment to challenging and questioning norms is real, and important. Far be it from me to claim that we’d be better off if we all had to be more conventional or couldn’t play around with taboos. Doing so is essential to both the philosophical method and the high quality of life we enjoy as philosophers. It’s just a dangerous game, is all, and people get hurt, and the hurt is not evenly distributed, so serious collaborative reflection on the dynamics at play is in order. We also need to get better at distinguishing between random, thoughtless bits of ideology and convention that deserve critical challenge, and norms that are in place to protect people from damage.
(With thanks to John Protevi and Timothy Burke)