I love disagreement, because it’s the lifeblood of science and philosophy, and of much decent politics. But if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s polite disagreement. The urge to be polite goes hand-in-hand with discomfort at disagreement, and that discomfort is inimical to both philosophy and science. When we are polite, we tend to disguise the extent of our differences of opinion. In doing so we make “moving targets” of our opinions, we Bambify them, we tart them up, instead of presenting them as clearly and as starkly as we can, perhaps even exaggerating or simplifying them for clarity and effect. In that way, we relinquish the pursuit of truth.
Polishing and softening ideas is a bad habit on the part of speakers, but it gives rise to an even worse malaise on the part of their listeners. Politeness fosters harmful expectations – that people will not be offended by what they hear. If we expect not to be offended, we will find the inevitable occasions when we are offended a greater discomfort. And we will try to avoid them. We will mix with “people of like minds”. We will follow on Twitter only those who give us the warm feeling of agreement. We will never hear moral opinions opposed to our own, because it is what we disapprove of that we find “offensive” above all else.
Teachers are in a position of power, of course, and must be careful not to insult their students, as such insults can be threatening or inhibiting, and thus harmful. But students need not observe symmetrical niceties towards their teachers. If they do, discussion becomes leaden and “mannered” rather than free. Everyone must think carefully before they speak lest they “say the wrong thing”. Thinking aloud is not allowed.
That is no way to do philosophy.
Worst of all, when people are obliged to vet their utterances, to care so very much about the effect their words are having on others, there is no playfulness. And playfulness, frivolity, teasing, silliness, even childishness are the lifeblood of creativity.
We live in a prissy age, which rates polish above straightforwardness and sophistication above silliness. Would you kindly cut it out, you self-important morons?