Rebecca Kukla has a very interesting (and, I think, important) post over at Leiter's blog on the dangers of sanctioning social norm violations in philosophy. As she points out at the beginning of the post, philosophers sometimes (often?) seem to associate being a "real philosopher" with certain types of social-norm-violating behaviors. Among these norm-violating behaviors are seemingly innocuous behaviors -- such as certain styles of dress and overall grooming (e.g. looking like a hobo), and other quirky behaviors -- but also far less innocuous behaviors, such as social pressure to "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."
What I find so interesting about Kukla's discussion is the worry that while (A) questioning social norms is an important part of philosophy, (B) the entire practice of sanctioning social-norm violations in philosophy, including the seemingly innocuous kinds, is fraught with moral hazard. She writes,
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.
Indeed, I am persuaded it is a dangerous game. Further, I am pursuaded that it is important to get better at distinguishing harmless quirks and legitimate questioning and even violation of social norms from violations of norms that are in place to protect people from damage. What I am not so sure of, though, is how to do this. So, for instance, not too long ago I wrote a post expressing my worry that prevailing trends toward hyperprofessionalization in philosophy -- and away from "quirkiness" -- have arguably led philosophy to become a less interesting, less subversive place. I've always loved people who are a bit strange because, well, it has always seemed to me that it goes along with a certain disposition to think originally, and differently. And I've always loved people who think differently, in large part because that's always what I've thought good philosophy is made of: seeing old things in new ways. Hyperprofessionalization has always seemed to me to produce people who think more alike -- which is not always bad, but can be, if it is taken too far.
Anyway, Kukla's post seems to me to raise a very difficult, and important, question. If quirkiness and the kinds of norm violations which often follow quirkiness are sometimes important for generating good philosophy (as I think it plausible), but sanctioning norm violations is a dangerous game for the reasons Kukla raises (which, again, I find persuasive), how can we arrive at the right balance? I just don't know. The most obvious thing to say, perhaps, is: we should allow the harmless norm-violations but not the harmful ones -- but Kukla's very point is that this is very difficult to do. Even some (many?) seemingly innocuous norm-violations -- such as norm-violations regarding styles of dress -- are, upon further reflection, not so innocuous (insofar as the santioning of those violations systematically favors certain harmful power imbalances). So, where do we draw the line? I just don't know. Do you?
I'm curious to see what you all think...