Posted tagged ‘rudeness’

Academic discourse: robust argument, or personal unkindness?

October 24, 2011

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.

The story of rude minor officials

September 25, 2011

We’ve probably all experienced this: an official, separated from us by a desk or indeed a glass partition, talks to us in rather patronizing and rude tones; or keeps us waiting after finishing with the last member of the public even though they can see – or maybe because they can see – that we are in a hurry. Then there is the official from whom we need something – say, an authorization – and who looks ever more likely to turn us down the more they see how important it is to us.

So, is that just a lot of unjustified stereotyping? Perhaps not. A study carried out by researchers from the University of Southern California, Northwestern University and Stanford University has revealed that persons with ‘high power and low status’ have a tendency to demean others. This is partly driven by the frustration of knowing that they do not themselves enjoy respect or admiration, and this prompts them to want to inconvenience or demean others. A solution, the researchers found, is for managers to assure and convince the people in question that their roles carry status and that they are respected.

I suspect this is also connected with the consequences of having a hierarchical society or organisation.

So there is little point being angry with the rude official. It is better to reinforce their sense of self-esteem.

Courtesy and manners: setting an example

November 12, 2008

In a previous post in this blog I commented on the difficulties we face as a society from the gradual erosion of courtesy and consideration. We live in a society in which rudeness, aggression and discourtesy are accepted all too easily.

I developed this theme in one of the graduation addresses I gave this week, and this in turn was picked up by some of the media. In a radio interview this morning on this matter, one of the questions raised was what influences might be playing a part in all this. I answered that people were often given a bad example by those in positions of prominence – the example of the prank telephone calls by Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand came to mind. But I also suggested that the nature and quality of parliamentary debates could give rise to the conclusion that rudeness and aggression were acceptable.

Below is an extract from the Dail Debates of today, November 12. It is a very typical extract. And I cannot help feeling that the cause of greater courtesy and consideration is not assisted by such exchanges.

Deputy Joan Burton:   After taking the medical card from our pensioners the Government has nothing to boast about.

Deputy Denis Naughten:   We are being provoked. I seek the protection of the Chair.

Deputy Joan Burton:   The Deputy will go down in history with former Minister Earnán de Blaghd.

Deputy Denis Naughten:   We are being provoked.

An Ceann Comhairle:   Deputy Naughten is easily provoked.

Deputy Michael Kennedy:   Deputy Burton’s Government is on record as giving £1.50.

Deputy Joan Burton:   Deputy Michael Kennedy is Earnán de Blaghd’s true successor.

An Ceann Comhairle:   Never mind Mr. Blaghd; he is dead and gone.

Deputy Joan Burton:   He is the Deputy’s great great grandfather. Does Deputy Michael Kennedy know who he is?

I cannot help feeling that, as a society, we need to start a debate on how we should relate to and interact with each other. Unless we become better at showing mutual respect, we cannot be surprised if others, including young people, conclude that discourtesy is an appropriate form of conduct.


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