Markel on Civility
posted by Dave Hoffman
Over at Prawfs, Dan Markel has a interesting post up on the ethics (and civility) of scholarship. Here’s a taste:
Anytime I’m tempted to write out of rage that someone’s argument is hopelessly misguided or fabulously wrong, I try to remember how much I cringe when my own work is criticized. I drop adverbs and instead use locutions such as the claims advanced in the article “seem mistaken or inaccurate” for the following reasons… This helps focus on, what Michael Walzer wisely described, the task of “getting the arguments right.” It’s not about making anyone look foolish or wicked.
To which Ethan Leib responds, in the comments:
Oh, I don’t know. This all seems a bit prissy. What great theorist hasn’t taken some liberties with broadstroking a school of thought? Doesn’t this ethic of careful citation and naming names (isn’t that a lot like dropping names?) just give the bluebook monkeys more to bother us about?
This emerging debate reminds me a bit of Brian Leiter’s incivility discussion three years back. I think Dan’s ethical principles are grappling with one of the central problems of being a scholar, which cycles to and from prominence in academic circles.
Surely, Dan’s goals are good ones. But, I think, they tradeoff against another goal we all want, which is to get our ideas across clearly. It is hard to write well. It gets harder when your writing is stripped of tone, weighted down by picayune citation, and qualified up the wazoo by a five-, seven-, or nine-level journal editing process. I’m sure Dan doesn’t mean that we should sacrifice clarity for civility, but I think the tradeoff is usually present.
Dan’s other claim is, essentially, that we should never think that scholars we disagree with are evil-minded. This, too, is a hard problem. Scholarship is a grind – often rewarding, always challenging, usually lonely – but always hard work. For me, imagining myself in a battle against wrongdoers (or, better, wrong-thinkers) is the best way to motivate to get out of bed in the morning and write. Cf. Why I Write (Prawfs ’05).
More significantly, the 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. [Update, I've reordered these possibilities to reflect my view of their likelihood, with a heavy weighting toward the first] In any event, civility and collegiality seem less important to me than being satisfied, in my mind, that I’ve gotten the arguments right and demonstrated to the reader how I arrived at them. Proper and generous citation will generally out foolishness. As Ethan points out, “It’s an adversary process out there.”