In light of some recent discussions, it’s amazing to me how some people have such a difficult time getting their head around the concept of generosity. They seem to either see it as a disguised exercise of power or as something that would prevent them from engaging in critical thinking. While hard to practice, I think the idea of generosity is pretty simple.
1) Don’t begin with the premise that the new person you’re talking to is your enemy or ignorant. Instead begin with the premise that they have reasons for what they’re saying and that they’re talking in good faith. If repeated interaction reveals they don’t know what they’re talking about, so be it. But don’t start from these premises.
2) Recognize that not everyone has the same project and that it is not an assault on you if they have a different project they’re working on. The biologist takes nothing away from the physicist, the linguist takes nothing away from the classicist. Not everyone is engaged with your little hill. That’s okay.
3) Begin from the premise that if someone who has gone through requisite education has an idea that seems to you like it’s batshit crazy insane or completely ridiculous, you’ve probably misinterpreted what they’re saying rather than them saying something idiotic. Go back to the drawing board and try to think about what they’re saying from a standpoint that a reasonable person would hold. This is a good rule of thumb in general. Until proven otherwise, you should begin with the premise that your interlocutor is reasonable. Your bar for concluding that they’re unreasonable should be very high.
4) Always be respectful and treat your interlocutors with dignity. Avoid all snark and sarcasm, especially online. Avoid insults to the intelligence of the person you’re talking to, as well as insults to their person as well. While us OOOers have certainly not always behaved in the most upright and best way to our interlocutors over the years, again and again I find that the people who complain the most about allegedly being “mistreated” were people who regularly insulted the intelligence of the people they were addressing, their person, who used snark and sarcasm mistaking these things for wit, etc. It’s not a surprise that people occasionally boil over when addressed in these ways and when they’re repeatedly mocked. You’re the problem in these instances, not the people who stopped talking to you. Snark and ribbings are for bar talk with close friends. They aren’t appropriate for intellectual discussions.
5) Forgive and forget. Generally if you hold grudges you’re an asshole. Those of us in the humanities are passionate folks. We’re passionate about our subjects and disciplines. We’re passionate about the shingle we’ve decided to set up. We’re passionate about the ethical and political issues we’re committed to. As a result of these passions– as well as the general lack of recognition our work gets outside of the academy –we sometimes boil over in debate. The fact that you had a bad exchange on this particular occasion doesn’t mean that person is your mortal enemy for all eternity. Don’t fall prey to the “narcissism of minor differences“. Don’t go on mean spirited vendettas. Forget it and move on. In over a decade of interacting with people online, I think there are maybe three people that I think are completely hopeless because they obviously suffer from some serious mental illnesses. I generally completely forget the heated debates with the others I’ve had.
6) Be a bonobo not a chimpanzee! Is it a mistake that a lot of the acrimonious behavior we see in the academic blogosphere is among men? Seriously, we look like a bunch of chimpanzees killing children of our rivals, forming all male grooming posses, pissing on trees, and so on. It’s ridiculous. Knock it off. Stop reenacting your biological heritage and treating intellectual discussion as if it’s somehow undermining your reproductive possibilities. Stop pissing on trees and forming tribes.
7) Don’t practice the hermeneutics of suspicion with people you’re talking to. It’s fine to engage in a hermeneutics of suspicion with respect to a system of ideas or an ideology you’re talking about, but if you engage in this with the person you’re talking to or start psychoanalyzing them, you’re being an asshole and you’re blowing things up. Take their claims at face value until proven otherwise. Again, the bar for being proven otherwise should be pretty damned high.
8) Don’t write grudge posts. If you find yourself writing ugly posts about others that mention and link to them by name you’re being an asshole. Let it go. You’re behaving like an insecure chimp and making yourself look small. I think this goes doubly for those of us online who have major scholarly accomplishments under their belt, like having published numerous books and articles. If you find yourself writing acrimonious posts about some grad student that was nasty to you or someone who wrote a nasty tweet about you and you’ve accomplished these things, you look pretty ridiculous. In Texas we wonder about you in the same way we wonder about dudes with jacked up trucks. We wonder what you’re compensating for. We wonder why you’re getting all worked up about some random comment on twitter or what some person barely familiar with your work and who hasn’t accomplished nearly what you’ve accomplished is writing such a thing. This makes you look bad, not the person you’re writing about.
Am I guilty of falling short of all these suggestions? Absolutely. But we’re talking about regulative ideals here, the fact/value dichotomy, not what happens in reality. I try to get better. I fall short. I will so that I don’t think there’s much of a mystery as to what generosity is in discussion, that being generous in no way undermines your ability to “be critical”– I can’t tell you how many times someone who behaves like an asshole and gets blocked from this blog protests that ‘I just can’t take criticism'; um no, I have no time for assholes that call me names and suggest I’m an idiot –and I believe it’s rather disturbing for someone to practice the hermeneutics of suspicion on values like generosity and charity. We could use a whole hell of a lot more of these things across the board, not less.