Horseshoes, Hand Grenades, and the APA’s “Code of Conduct”

by Edward Kazarian and Leigh M. Johnson

A little over two years ago, more than 600 philosophers petitioned the American Philosophical Association to “produce a code of conduct and a statement of professional ethics for the academic discipline of Philosophy.” The immediate motivation for the petition was several high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by philosophers, which together amplified what many viewed—rightly, in our estimation—as a widespread and endemic culture of hostility, predation, exploitation, and intimidation within the profession.  Shortly thereafter, in March 2014, we co-authored a piece entitled “Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone,” articulating our concerns about the problematic effects of tone-policing, generally, and about the drafting and institution of a “Code of Conduct” by the APA, specifically.  In that piece, we argued that there was good reason to worry that such a Code would:

1) impose a disproportionate burden of changing their behavior to “fit in” on those who are members of out- (that is, underrepresented or minority) groups within the profession; 2) likely be applied disproportionately against those expressing dissenting views or criticizing colleagues for lapses in judgment or perception; and 3) tend to reinforce or provide opportunities to reiterate the structures of privilege and exclusion already operating within the profession.

The Executive Board of the APA subsequently decided in favor of producing the document and, earlier this week, published the final version of the discipline’s official “Code of Conduct” here.

Reading that document over, our original worries remain unassuaged and unabated, if not also intensified. We are especially concerned now that this quasi-official document—which elaborates a set of norms, but does not include any mechanisms for enforcement, adjudication, or sanction—will inevitably be used at the local (department-, college-, or university) level in unofficial, ad-hoc ways to undermine or sabotage already vulnerable members of the profession. Worse, we worry that this document will provide pretext for attempts to pressure APA members by complaining to their employers that they have in some instance or another behaved ‘unprofessionally.’ We recognize that any law or regulative code as such allows for the possibility of perverse application, but we maintain that the current iteration of this Code of Conduct is particularly susceptible to manipulation for a number of reasons.

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