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

by Ed Kazarian

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.

First, the APA Code of Conduct is entirely silent on matters of adjudication and enforcement. Absent any “teeth,” in our view, the current Code of Conduct really isn’t worth the Internet it’s written on. We fail to see why some mechanism for censuring or sanctioning violators of the norms outlined in the Code of Conduct as the APA interprets those norms was not included in the document. As it now stands, the Code of Conduct leaves itself open to—and, we worry, invites—idiosyncratic interpretations of its prescriptions and proscriptions, thus making it far more likely that it will be used as a sort of back-door weapon to tarnish the reputation and professional standing of APA members generally—and especially of precarious faculty, who will inevitably suffer the worst consequences from such efforts. The fact that two tenured full professors and APA members, Jason Stanley (Yale) and Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown) were recently subject to coordinated waves of complaints to their employers, based largely on the alleged incivility and unprofessionalism of things they said on Facebook, should bring home just how potentially damaging such tactics are. And it should be easy to see how similar attacks are likely to be more damaging to those who are, unlike Stanley and Kukla, precariously employed.  Inasmuch the current Code of Conduct can—and indeed almost surely will—be used as a pretext to go after APA members for perceived ‘violations’ by any number of parties, we worry that it is worse than “merely unenforceable.” In fact, we cannot say with any certainty who might make use of this Code as justification, or for what purpose, and neither can the APA, which is a devastating flaw in its current construction.

Second, some of the discursive, pedagogical, and ideological norms outlined in the APA Code of Conduct are over-corrective. We applaud the efforts of the drafting committee to address the widespread practice of online and IRL “bullying and harassment” in our profession, and we support without reservation the call to “treat others fairly, equitably, and with dignity,” to “maintain integrity and trust in all professional commitments and interactions,” and to recognize that “power and seniority” do not exempt anyone from expectations of minimally decent behavior.  However, the Code of Conduct’s requirement that professional philosophers “respect the philosophical opinions and traditions of others, without disparaging those who hold positions at odds with one’s own” constitutes, in our view, a prescriptive overreach.  On our reading, such a requirement is entirely inconsistent with the basic tenets of intellectual integrity. One can, after all, treat others fairly, equitably and with dignity, as well as “maintain integrity and trust” in one’s commitments and interactions without obviating the possibility that one might also regard or represent the positions of one’s interlocutors as being of little worth—or even, for instance, as morally outrageous. Indeed, we think it is crucial to recognize that “disparaging” others’ positions may well be part and parcel of the very needful process of critically examining both the history of philosophy and its contemporary practice with regard to racism, eurocentrism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and other morally objectionable ideologies. We stipulate that (what we suspect were) the intentions of the drafting committee in proscribing “disparaging those who hold positions at odds with one’s own” are well-meaning, but the inclusion of this proscription in a professional Code of Conduct is both dangerous and frightening. Especially when coupled with our third concern (detailed below), we maintain that such a proscription will effectively work as a gag-order against those who might challenge, dispute, or oppose dominant professional discourses and norms.

Third, the APA Code of Conduct’s insistence that philosophers have a “special responsibility with regard to potential liability issues for the institutions for which they work” is unacceptable. We strenuously object to this use in the Code of Conduct (in the section on “Electronic Communications”) of the term “special responsibility.” As employees, professional philosophers are all subject to (serious) legal sanction for violations of college/university rules and regulations, so there is no extra coercive force added by the APA Code of Conduct’s reiteration of such.  What is added by the Code of Conduct’s reiteration, which we find both troublesome and entirely inconsistent with the history of philosophy as it has been practiced for millennia, is the requirement that philosophers as such identify themselves on the side of institutions and not, at the risk of sounding romantic, on the side of Truth. It is not difficult to imagine, or to find real-world instances of, official or unofficial “relevant institutional policies” regarding electronic communications that are entirely at odds with the pursuit of, defense of, or expression of Truth—one might, for instance, consider the case of the social media policy at The University of Kansas, discussed here.  The opening paragraph of the Code of Conduct states that “the APA underscores not only the right of all professional philosophers to academic freedom, but also the responsibility to safeguard and sustain it.” The APA’s commitment to the responsibility to safeguard and sustain academic freedom is, in our view, entirely inconsistent with its requirement that professional philosophers subordinate their intellectual pursuits to the “potential liability issues for the institutions for which they work.”

Fourth, and finally, the APA Code of Conduct’s grossly ambivalent statements regarding “bullying and harassment” do more harm than good. Since the initial call for an APA Code of Conduct two years ago, the epidemic of sexual harassment in Philosophy has (unfortunately) not abated, though it is (fortunately) the case that it is now exponentially harder to deny.  What has changed is that there has been a statistically significant increase in the number of professional philosophers participating in various online fora, many of whom opt to participate pseudonymously or anonymously. As might be expected, the consequence of this development has been that many of the endemic patterns of IRL bullying and harassment that plague our profession are being duplicated online.  These patterns are now not only absolutely public, but also as unavoidable as they are inescapable. Consequently, there is no justifiable reason, in our view, for the “beating around the bush” section on bullying and harassment in the APA Code of Conduct.  As has been already articulated quite convincingly by Eric Schliesser (in his post “On why the APA’s Code of Conduct is a Wimpy Attempt at Responding to Brian Leiter”), there is no reason for the APA not to specifically identify well-known examples of offenses and offenders. The practical effect of the APA’s ambiguity and equivocation in its section on “Bullying and Harassment,” we worry, is to put at risk the very constituency it aims to protect, which we presume (hope!) is that of the most personally and professionally vulnerable among us.  When the Code of Conduct defines bullying/harassment as “any degrading, hostile, or offensive conduct or comment by a person towards another that the person knew or reasonably ought to have known would cause the target to be humiliated, intimidated, or otherwise gratuitously harmed,” it more or less leaves the hermeneutic barn door wide open, such that specific instances of conduct or comments that fit this broad criterion are largely indistinguishable from one another. In particular, it becomes difficult if not impossible on this basis to distinguish genuine harassment and abuse of power from critical contestation of the sort we mention in point two above.  This means that one could reasonably interpret the Code of Conduct to read that what Michel Foucault called parrhesia counts as “bullying” in the same way and to the same degree as any garden-variety racist, sexist, homophobic, ablest diatribe would. And that, in fact, is precisely how civility standards are often used to silence the objections of the oppressed to oppressive treatment—a trap into which the APA’s code falls head first.

In summary, we regret to say that the actual Code of Conduct produced by the APA has, in fact, confirmed all of the worries (and more) that we expressed in our original essay “Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone.” Indeed, we are dismayed because, in our view, the production and publication of this code is likely to exacerbate many of the problems in the profession, and many of the problems that APA members face in their academic positions, while doing little or nothing at all to mitigate the problems it was originally supposed to address. And while we are certain that the drafters of the Code did not intend many of the uses to which we find it susceptible to being put, documents of this sort need to be evaluated in terms of their possible (and likely) effects, not in terms of the intentions of those who produced them or the body that adopts them. On this score, the APA’s Code of Conduct is dangerously flawed.

[This post originally appeared at Leigh’s blog, Read More Write More Think More Be More.  Since its original publication, Prof. Leiter, who continues to wield some measure of power and influence, has helpfully illustrated one of our key points by accusing several faculty (at least some of whom are precariously employed) of violating these professional conduct norms. And now that the damage, so to speak, has been done, those so accused find themselves without recourse to any adjudication process that might resolve the question of whether that contention has merit.]