Matt Bodie chides Roberta Romano, Larry Ribstein, and I for standing up for ourselves against John Coffee's (as Romano put it) "serial namecalling." We could quibble about whether what Coffee wrote is actually insulting; I still think so given our history. Indeed, it's curious that Bodie leaves out any reference to the Sgt. Schultz crack (which admittedly still rankles).
Bodie also complains that we've all "Called a major piece of federal legislation "quack corporate governance.'" BFD. There's a huge difference between uncivil towards a person and being uncivil about a piece of legislation.
So Bodie's main complaint is that Larry and I have been uncivil from time to time when blogging. I concede the charge. Although I'm usually a pretty civil fellow even on this site, there have been more than a few times when I cut loose with a few zingers. But so what?
In his essay The Circumstances of Civility, Brian Leiter defines civility as "showing respect for the other person or persons with whom one is conversing; avoiding insulting, demeaning or derisive language (or gestures); and genuinely listening to (and trying to make good sense of) what the other person says." A good working definition. I'll adopt it.
But when should one be civil?
Leiter argues that context matters:
Some philosophers with Kantian intuitions think that civility is always a general requirement of respect for persons, an intuition that I do not share, and for which I can not think of any compelling arguments, and many objectionable counter-examples, like those in the text: treating Nazis in Weimar with civility seems to me a moral failing on the part of their opponents, not a requirement of respect. Such a demanding conception of civility would also be incompatible with derisive polemics (think H.L. Mencken), which often play an important role in political and social life.
Instead of being a universal value, Leiter argues that civility is a paramount virtue in settings characterized by "epistemic values and motives: knowledge, understanding, learning, and the desire for all of these."
Leiter offers teaching as the prime example of such a circumstance. I would argue that formal scholarship and academic conferences, however, come in as close seconds. They are conversations in which people are trying to exchange knowledge and learn from one another. Incivility in those contexts distorts the conversation and therefore tends to impede the epistemic values inherent in those contexts.
Blogging is something else entirely. It's not a conversation (at least the way i do it), it's a monoloque. To be sure, there's some learning and imparting of knowledge going on, but there's also politics, football, and so on. Insults, disparaging or derisive remarks, and even expressions of contempt have been part and parcel of the enterprise since the start. No sensible person would deny that Leiter is a serious and important scholar, for example, but he admits to routinely be uncivil in the blogosphere:
It has, on occasion, been noted that gentleness is not the hallmark of my postings on this blog, at least on matters of a political nature. The fans call it the "no bullshit" approach, pungent, acerbic. This law student calls me, aptly enough, "the man who blogs with a hammer," while Jeremy Stangroom at Butterflies & Wheels says I am "everyone's favorite Rottweiler." (I'm not sure about everyone's.) Dispassionate discursiveness is not the medium in which I generally operate here, a fact for which some of my philosopher friends occasionally take me to task.
While I've never had the misfortune of being a target of Brian's rapier wit, some of the things other people have said about yours truly in the blogosphere make comparing one to Sgt. Schultz sound like a compliment. Because I know the blogosphere is a rough place, I've mostly ignored them or, rarely, responded in kind. In contrast, I both give and expect civility in scholarly settings, which is why I took issue with Coffee.
There's a time and a place for "Dispassionate discursiveness" and a time and a place for incivility. I'm comfortable with where I've chosen to draw the line.