I have been a blogger at Feminist Philosophers for about 5 years. I resigned from the blog over the summer but now want to do so publicly. I may still occasionally post here, where things are quiet, but I have stepped away from engagement with the more high-traffic online philosophy culture.
My primary area of research and interest concerns early Chinese ethics and its focus on civility and manners. That’s largely the idiom from which I blogged at FP, my posts most often focusing on intersections in feminism and civility or spurred by my own commitments to civility. Perhaps that was always an awkward fit, given that calls for civility have historically seated uneasily with progressive politics, at least for some. But whatever the case, I left the blog out of a sense that the fit just isn’t right and want to say at least a little about the wider atmosphere in online discourse among philosophers.
Until I began blogging, I avoided online conversations, not eager to enter the fray when conversations could so often be heated, inhumane, and unpleasant. So too, online discussions often favor the quick and agile, the aggressive and insistent, people who like (or at least can ably engage) the rough and tumble of agonistic back and forth – and most of all those who are confidently certain. Honestly, the rough and tumble mostly makes me sad and I often have a shortage of certainty.
Reading both social media and blog conversations among philosophers, I often feel demoralized. The people who speak most and most insistently seem not only to be absolutely clear about what they think, but think there is no other legitimate, respectable, or even moral way to think. My trouble is usually not that I think otherwise, but that I don’t entirely know what I think. And not knowing what to think is itself sometimes cast as shameful. In too many contexts, to confess confusion or uncertainty is to confess deficiency – sometimes in philosophical acumen, sometimes in “smarts,” sometimes in moral clarity, sometimes even in basic humanity.
Most broadly, I despair of the quick condemnation, scorn, and contempt that so often animates the commentary offered by the certain, whatever the direction of their certainty. I worry that we incentivize both certainty and hiding confusion. Or, more accurately, that we encourage people to *perform* their engagement in online conversations as if their views are confidently, firmly settled – worse, as if all alternatives are justly derided and scorned. We also thereby suppress contributions by those who can’t or won’t do this.
I do understand that calls for civility can be weaponized to stifle opposing views and expressions of righteous anger. I understand that calls for civility can work as but “tone policing.” But I don’t know what to do with that, assuming we want more than “dialogue” in the unrestrained fashion of cage-matches that leave all bloodied. And assuming we want to interact with more than those whose certainties mirror our own and offer no complicating confusions. I likewise worry that we grow so cynical about civility that we assume its *only* motivation can be to stifle and police. Human motivations are a nasty mess so maybe it is right to doubt desires for civility. But where cynicism is concerned, if I’m in for a penny, I’ll go in for a pound and also doubt that few of us are as righteous as we think when we eagerly and aggressively assail. Maybe it’s sometimes good to punch for justice, but maybe doing it too much and too often just cultivates an appetite to punch. That, at least, is one of my reservations.
In my experience blogging, I’ve inevitably been unsteady in my own practice of civility. In truth, I’m losing the thread, finding it ever harder to want engagement of any sort online. Recognizing this is what initially tempted me to quit the discursive field, to just recede into handling my confusions elsewhere, off the FP blog, with others or in solitude.
Then this past summer, just as I was trying to decide once and for all about resigning from FP, I came upon a wreck near our farm moments after it happened. We are miles from town, so it took about 40 minutes for an ambulance to arrive. While we waited, a neighbor and I did our best to help and comfort the driver, an elderly man with a severe head wound. I also set to work tracking down his people. When I reached his kin, I was told that the man was freshly bereaved – his wife had died two days before. I would find out that evening that he died too, that her funeral would now be joined with his.
But stopped there on the side of the road, with my shirt against his bleeding head and helpless to do naught but wait, I abruptly found a clarity I rarely enjoy and just stopped caring in some fundamental way about public online involvement in philosophy. The meanness, the derision and shaming, the inhumanity of our interactions online are too difficult to absorb into the life I really want. It wasn’t that I suddenly contemplated the waste of my finite mortal hours on a blog. It is that I want to use whatever I have in labors that encourage me to attend to life’s big confusions gently, with trepidation, and away from the hastening, importunate ire of agonistic contests between those already wholly certain. I don’t see that impulse enjoying much place in our online conversations. So I am done.