posted by Daniel Solove
After reading the posts by Dan Markel and Dave Hoffman on academic civility, I can’t help but join into the fray. Markel and Hoffman offer radically different perspectives. Markel suggests that professors should criticize other professors’ work mildly. He says that he will “drop adverbs and instead use locutions such as the claims advanced in the article ‘seem mistaken or inaccurate’.” He argues for a bunch of other steps academics should take lest they slightly mischaracterize another’s argument, such as showing one’s criticism to the academic being criticized first for comments.
Hoffman takes the opposite approach: “[T]he unique conceit of legal scholarship (among the humanities) is that it directly affects the lives of millions of people. Since I intend for my work to better those millions of lives, and I think my arguments are correct, I have to assume that people I disagree with on fundamental issues either are wrong about the results of their policies in the real world, don’t care about their fellow citizens (more precisely, care about ideas as intellectual games), or are simply nasty folks.”
I believe that both Markel and Hoffman are wrong. Put in Markelian terms, it might appear to be the case that there’s a possibility that Markel is not entirely correct, though I can’t be certain. In Hoffman’s terms, Hoffman’s perspective stems from an evil fundamentalism [insert reference to terrorists here]. In similistic terms, Markel advances a love your opponent approach and Hoffman advances a hate your opponent approach.
First of all, I believe that legal academics should not be so convinced of the truth of their arguments that they are unwilling to welcome opposing viewpoints. I, for one, think and hope I’m right, but I’m far from certain. I strive to be correct, but I believe it is also important to entertain doubts, to listen and address counterarguments, to always be aware of my fallibility. It is a kind of fundamentalism that leads to the belief that one’s views are definitely correct and that all who disagree must be wrong and evil. I believe that this kind of fundamentalism is incompatible with my vision of what being an academic is all about.
Second, while I hope that my ideas affect society, I do not see myself as a crusader. I present arguments, ideas, and evidence for people to use. I thus supply grist for certain legal or policy debates, but I don’t see myself as leading the charge for change. Had I wanted to affect society in this way, I would have become an advocate or a politician. While I care deeply about how my ideas play out in practice, I think it is important for the academic to retain some degree of detachment.
On the other hand, I don’t agree with Dan Markel that one must be very deferential to those making opposing arguments. Academic discourse is a vigorous debate. Ideally, arguments can be made in a civil way (name calling is counterproductive and adds nothing). But this doesn’t mean that one should pull one’s punches. If I think another person is wrong, I’ll point it out as strongly and as powerfully as I possibly can . . . and sometimes even with a little bit of spice. Sometimes I’ll solicit advance comments from the scholar I’m critiquing, but I don’t view this as a necessity. Being criticized is part of this business, and you need to have a thick skin. I’d much rather be criticized than ignored, so my attitude is “bring it on.”
In the end, I’m engaging in a debate and presenting arguments. It is my arguments that will either win the day or will not, and my role is to make them as persuasively, as thoughtfully, as logically, and as completely as possible. If another scholar disagrees, so be it. My arguments will either hold up or they won’t. Hating or loving my antagonists will do absolutely nothing to change that.