I have been contemplating beginning to blog for a while now, but have finally been motivated to take the plunge following an exchange with one of my favourite people on Twitter.
She was uncomfortable with the themes in a television programme she had watched, and tweeted her concerns. Out of a desire not to appear overly aggressive or confrontational, she preceded her thoughts with a disclaimer along the lines of: “now maybe it’s just me being oversensitive, but…”. A dissenter immediately replied, calling her view stupid, and using that disclaimer against her: “you said it yourself; you’re oversensitive”.
This led to my friend feeling silenced and not taken seriously; her attempts to explain her reasons for objecting to the themes of said tv show were ignored, as she was dismissed as stupid and oversensitive. But crucially, she blamed herself for having been treated in this dismissive way. She thought she had brought it on herself for expressing her opinions in an apologetic, self-effacing manner. By preceding her thoughts with the caveat “maybe it’s just me”, she had invited rude and aggressive responses along the lines of “yes, it’s just you, idiot”.
This got me thinking about my own behaviour, because I do just this sort of thing all the time. Especially in philosophy seminars. When I need further clarification of a point, I will often begin: “sorry, I didn’t quite understand, can you explain point X a bit more for me?” Or “I’m sorry, perhaps you addressed this point and I missed it”. Often this is genuinely done from lack of confidence in my own capacities – I frequently worry that I’m not as smart as the other people in the room, and hence that I don’t know, or don’t understand, something they do. But I also do this at other times. Even when I’m reasonably confident that the question I’m asking isn’t a stupid one, or the comment I’m offering is valuable and interesting, I still frequently preface my contribution with some kind of apologetic, self-effacing caveat.
When discussing my tendency to do this with a friend and colleague, he suggested – like my friend on twitter seemed to be suggesting about herself – that this is something I ought to work hard at eradicating from my speech. Doing this, he said, is to put myself in a position of weakness and inferiority from the outset. I am encouraging others to dismiss my opinions as mistaken. By presenting my thoughts in such a hesitant and apologetic way, I am inviting others to regard what I am saying as probably false, and not worth taking seriously.
Now, I suspect that this is a tendency we are more likely to see from women than by men. (This is mere speculation based on my own experience, and anecdotes of others. I’m sure there must be some empirical data on the subject, but I’m not familiar with it, so I’m just throwing the hypothesis out there for now.) And further, I’m sure many women are familiar with the experience of struggling to be taken seriously, just because we are women. Feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker labels this phenomenon ‘testimonial injustice’: when your credibility as a source of knowledge is deflated due to prejudices held by the hearer. Again, throwing empirical hypotheses around without any attempt to verify them, I have a feeling that this is a form of injustice that women are often subject to. Women are frequently – even if only subconsciously – regarded as less credible sources of knowledge and less competent reasoners than men. This is especially likely to occur in contexts that have historically been dominated by men, or continue to be populated by disproportionate numbers of men. And academic philosophy is certainly one of those contexts.
So then the worry is that when I make these self-effacing, timid sounding preambles to my arguments, I am not only undermining my own status as a bearer of knowledge and encouraging my listeners not to take me seriously. I am also reinforcing these prejudices in the minds of my audience. Given that I am a woman, they may have already been predisposed to deflate my credibility. When I express myself in an apologetic, tentative manner, I thereby present them with more evidence to confirm their biases, both with respect to myself, and women speakers in general. The prejudice is perpetuated, and my listeners are more inclined to dismiss my contributions, and further, those of other women. So perhaps I owe it not only to myself, but also to other women, to try to eradicate these displays of reticence from my speech, and be more confident and assertive. Perhaps I ought to be much bolder, more direct, perhaps even aggressive, in the way so many other people (men?) seem to be when engaging in debate. It’s especially tempting to think like this in the context of the philosophy seminar. These can be highly combative, adversarial environments, and it seems like if I want to keep up, be taken seriously and make a name for myself in this profession, I’m going to have to get over my timidity and get more assertive, quickly.
Perhaps. But I’m not so sure. There are a couple of reasons why I resist that conclusion, even if it might result in me and my arguments being taken more seriously.
First, as I noted above, this self-effacement is not always caused by lack of self-confidence or reticence on my part. Sometimes it is. But often, it’s simply a function of the way I relate to people. I’m just not an especially aggressive or confrontational person (or at least, I don’t think I am, anyway). Being forceful and assertive – especially when expressing disagreement or challenging someone – is something that I find deeply uncomfortable. Maybe this is because I’m not naturally oozing with self-confidence, but I would like to believe it’s at least partly because I’m the kind of person who likes to facilitate social relations, to encourage consensus and harmony, to prevent conflict and people feeling uncomfortable or under attack. Basically, I’m a nice person with a healthy capacity for empathy, so I don’t enjoy seeing people being vigorously criticised or attacked, even when I can plainly see that their arguments are mistaken. And I think that’s a good thing. These are positive aspects of my personality, and I don’t really want to have to change, to become more confrontational and aggressive, in order to be respected as a bearer of knowledge.
Now, the defender of the philosophy-seminar-as-gladiatorial-arena model may respond that it’s all well and good to be nice, but the purpose of a seminar is not for everyone to get along and feel happy and cosy – the purpose is to arrive at the truth. And on the way to the truth, there’s going to be a bit of rough and tumble; a certain amount of hostility and belligerence towards clearly false claims or poor arguments is inevitable. The same can be said of political argument – the purpose is not to respect everyone’s viewpoints equally, no matter how clearly irrational. Rather, the purpose is to work out what is the right thing for us to do. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the argumentative kitchen.
But, to me at least – see the caveat there? – this seems to too quickly assume that these goals are not compatible: that if we are engaged in the pursuit of truth, we can’t possibly be expected to be nice to one another. And this brings me to my second reason to resist modifying my behaviour: the above response puts the blame for their exclusion squarely on the shoulders of the timid and tentative, rather than considering that perhaps the environment in which we are debating is unnecessarily adversarial and aggressive. It puts the onus for change on those who are less assertive and confident, rather than asking those who are more combative to consider altering their behaviour.
When this happens, everybody loses. Some of the timid people might manage to ‘toughen up’ and get more confrontational, but many more will simply retreat from debate, unable to handle the discomfort. Many shy, hesitant people will stop expressing their opinions altogether, for fear of public embarrassment. And the loss of those voices from the debate isn’t going to help us arrive at the truth.
So I don’t accept that my friend invited the insulting and dismissive response to her cogent and articulate tweets. And I don’t accept that I must get louder, more aggressive and more combative if I want to be taken seriously.