Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let's Not Have Feelings!

While writing about the Harvard racist e-mails thing, one editor of Above The Law says this:

Here at ATL, we're actually very pleased by the fantastic traffic frank and robust discussion that this email controversy has sparked. But we — okay, I'm shifting to "I," since your three ATL editors have rather divergent views on this episode — actually wish that DNA's email wasn't so controversial.

In an academic setting, it should be possible to put any proposition on the table for debate. No position should lie beyond the pale. Some — in fact, many — such positions will be stupid or wrong. But we should be able to debate all issues rationally, vigorously and openly, without having to worry about offending anyone.

Set aside the question whether e-mails are part of an academic setting. The fact still remains that debating any issue, "vigorously and openly, without having to worry about offending anyone" is impossible for mere humans to do. Unless those mere humans happen to belong to a group which is obviously assumed to be capable of intellectual thought, leadership and the creation of civilizations.

It's that imbalance which makes me very scornful of urgings to debate everything vigorously and openly, without any repercussions that might come from offending a person. If this editor has routinely debated his/her own value and worthiness openly, vigorously, robustly and in all those other wonderful ways, my hat goes up to him or her. But I suspect that is not the case, simply because of that initial assertion that one should not be offended by having one's own humanity subjected to a robust debate.

Here's the important point: I am NOT arguing that we shouldn't debate anything and everything. I'm just pointing out that if I'm put on a panel as the only woman and the topic is "Can Women Think?" I will certainly be angry, I will feel pressured to put on my best and brightest arguments and I know that many in the audience want me to make a mess of it. Whether all this will affect my performance is an important question (stereotype threat comes to mind here), and one men on that hypothetical panel would not have to think about when deciding on their own arguments. So such debates are never really on an even ground.

To ask that one should have no feelings when under attack is idiotic.