“If you don’t have anything nice to say…”

When I was a kid, my parents used to tell me that if I didn’t have anything nice to say, I shouldn’t say anything at all. I do see some merit in that recommendation. For example, I think it probably would have been better for me and my siblings to stay quiet during dinner rather than complain about various aspects of the meal that my mother had worked hard to prepare. I doubt it’s always a good thing to stay quiet rather than voicing one’s complaints, though, and saying only “nice” things likely would make for a very boring life. I’ve come to believe that there is, in fact, such a thing as being “too nice.” I fear that I myself have been guilty of it from time to time. Being “nice” and staying quiet does make life easier in certain respects. It has allowed me to steer clear of confrontation and avoid the hassle of having to deal with people on numerous occasions. But there are times when something “not-so-nice” needs to be said, and when staying quiet just to avoid unpleasantness probably is about the worst thing one could do.

Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that we have a moral obligation to break laws that are unjust. His distinction between law and justice/morality is one that most people probably accept, but the idea that we should refuse to follow unjust laws is fairly controversial. Whenever we break a law (whether just or unjust), we put ourselves at risk of being punished. Do we really have an obligation to do something that has a good chance of bringing us harm?

Likewise, when we say “not-so-nice” things that challenge the status quo (whether in a faculty meeting, at a conference session, or in a blog post), we put ourselves at risk.  Potential dangers include alienating people, not getting a job, not getting tenure, not getting published, and/or not being taken seriously.

Now, it may be that sometimes  it’s better to stay quiet. We have to pick our battles, after all. However, if our silence means that our criticisms about professional philosophy and higher education never get raised, then we have lost out on an opportunity to change things and make them better.

MLK’s goal was progress rather than anarchy. He was a proponent of changes that he thought would improve society as a whole, and he saw that refusing to obey unjust laws was an important part of nonviolent protest. Following such laws was tantamount, in his view, to accepting them as just.

Likewise, saying “not-so-nice” things about professional philosophy should be undertaken with the hope of changing things. It is an important part of protesting the status quo. Saying nothing is tantamount to accepting that things are just fine the way they are.

And so I end my first post with the following recommendation: Even if you don’t have anything nice to say about professional philosophy, you should go right on talking.

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