Academic discourse: robust argument, or personal unkindness?
Last week a friend, who works in another university, wrote me an email telling me about the stress she is experiencing as a result of the behaviour of an academic colleague, who has been haranguing her (and others) at committee meetings. It is not an entirely rare experience in universities, alas.
In a previous job, I had a colleague who was very keen on presenting himself as a ‘take-me-as-you-find-me’ character who never failed to be forthright in his opinions and who liked to say that everyone deserved to hear the ‘honest truth’ from him. Let us call him John. John’s view of the world was not a rosy one. The world was a bad place, and people were bad, and times were hard. This man’s glass was not so much half empty as entirely drained of even the last drop of liquid. And nobody who came into contact with him was spared a full account of his boundless and energetic pessimism. Nor were they spared his views of their faults and weaknesses, which he believed he had a duty to point out.
John was also fond of saying that academic discussions needed to be ‘robust’, though I rather came to the conclusion that what he meant was that he needed to be gratuitously rude and discourteous when engaging in debate. His rationale was that academic arguments needed to be tested, and that this required the counter-argument to be expressed as sharply as possible to see if the original point could withstand the heat.
Anyway, one day John appeared in my office and began with: ‘Can I be frank?’
I replied, ‘Of course, Frank, absolutely. And by what surname would you like to be known?’
John (now Frank) stood there for a moment, uncharacteristically indecisive. He was perhaps weighing up whether I had been trying to be witty or just unpleasant. He left the room without saying anything else, so I think unpleasant won out. But he never burdened me again with his frank views.
There is, I think, a particular streak in some university circles that makes people feel there is something honourable or even noble in ‘speaking the truth’ in circumstances where ‘the truth’ is largely designed to hurt or offend. I am neither suggesting that this is widespread nor arguing that deception or dishonesty is better, but I do sometimes wonder at the apparent indifference we see in some people as to the effect they have on others. The view that intellectual integrity somehow justifies or even requires points to be made in an unkind way is not really anything better than an excuse for bullying.
I should emphasise that I am not saying that all academic discourse is personally mean; in fact, I am grateful for a spirit of community and solidarity which mostly characterizes the places where I have worked. But it is worth saying that there is nothing intellectually or personally weak in showing concern and kindness, even (and maybe especially) where we disagree; and maybe it would be good every now and again to remind ourselves of that, and to behave accordingly. No matter how intellectually powerful you think your argument may be, there is no need to express it in a personally rude manner. Ever.