Some Problems with Complaisance.

If something doesn’t bother me, e.g. the F-word, why should I be bothered that it bothers you?

Let’s start with friendship.

As Aristotle notes, “[Friends are] those with whom we are on such terms that, while we respect their opinions, we need not blush before them for doing what is conventionally wrong…” (Aristotle. Rhetoric. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Dover Publications, 2004. p 39 1381b).

My friend is of the opinion the F-word is particularly crass and says she won’t use it herself. But whenever I drop the F-word in our private conversations, she doesn’t notice. Or if she does, she never lets on.

My friend hasn’t changed her opinion, nor do I expect her to. Rather each of us places more value on our ability to speak freely with each other, to be ourselves, than on quibbles over word choice.

But what if one day she fesses up that the F-word makes her very uncomfortable? All right, I say, I’ll try to tone it down. And I do. But I slip. And whenever I slip, my friend pinches her face and tsk-tsks.

I’m increasingly frustrated by her disapproval, just as she’s increasingly frustrated by my slip-ups. We both become so hyper-vigilant about the F-word, my saying it and her hearing it, that our conversations are stifled and eventually shut down.

Aristotle observes that “We are angrier with our friends than with other people, since we feel that our friends ought to treat us well and not badly [… ] still more if they do the contrary; of if they do not perceive our needs […since] we do not fail to perceive the needs of those for whom we care” (Rhetoric, p63 1379b).

I feel my friend doesn’t care about my need to express myself freely, given the F-word is my one escape from a repressive community. And I feel she doesn’t appreciate the effort I have made for her sake. She feels I don’t appreciate how much the F-word bothers her, and how this discomfort affects her ability to express herself freely. Our friendship collapses under hurt feelings.

If our most intimate relationships are endangered by these emotional impasses, what of our interactions with colleagues at work or at school?

Some think ‘you guys’ isn’t gender-inclusive, others find it a perfectly gender neutral expression. Imagine a small office where you’ve worked as a receptionist for thirty years. There’s a big turnover in staff due to multiple retirements, and the new crew takes exception to your habitual use of ‘you guys’ as in, Will you guys please fill out the new insurance form and hand it back to me by four today?

You didn’t keep your job for thirty years by being non-biddable. So you agree to be mindful of your habit and find a substitute phrase. You slip a few times, and your new co-workers cheerily accept your apologies. Until you’ve slipped one too many times. And you overhear the staff gossiping about you, you and your wilful ignorance. You’re hurt. But the biggest blow comes when your boss calls you in for a talking-to about your unacceptable behaviour, each of you knowing that you’ll face your complainants as you exit his office.

Your boss won’t hear excuses for how difficult it’s been to change the habit, that you’re trying your best. Your boss believes, as many do, that “dropping you guys takes very little effort.” I’m older than you, says your boss, and I’ve done it.

Learning a new language comes easily to some and is nearly impossible for others, likewise changing linguistic habits. A load of other cognitive tasks makes the change all the harder. You are trying, you protest. You leave your boss’s office feeling betrayed. By him. I’ve given my best for thirty years, you think, doesn’t he know me by now? Is that what he thinks of me?

Your co-workers smile sheepishly as you take your place behind your desk, except for one who rivets her eyes to her computer screen. You begin to calculate the feasibility of early retirement and in the meantime you say as little as possible to your co-workers. You stop your niceties such as bringing donuts to work since it’s these habits that also elicit your egregious habit, You guys go help yourself to the goodies in the lunchroom! But no one will read your lack of niceties as your attempt to control your language. They’ll think you’re being petty. Taking revenge. Hence you’re not invited to staff socials afterwork on Fridays.

You might, when asked to stop saying ‘you guys’, politely decline. And you might continue bringing donuts for the new staff and become the person they count on in so many ways. After a while, the staff might not even notice your use of ‘you guys’. Although if asked, each will likely admit a preference that you didn’t. It’s just not the hill anyone wants to die on when a friendly work environment is at stake. And, feeling friendly, you might find yourself using ‘you guys’ just a little less.

Or, maybe you say, sure. I can stop using ‘you guys’, no skin off my ass. You’re one of those people who can readily make the change. And whether you’re one of those people who generalise that if it’s easy for you it’s easy for everyone, or whether you empathise with those who make the effort but can’t get it down pat, is neither here nor there. At least so long as the work environment functions with harmonious solidarity. Woe to the new-new employee who has to learn to play the office politics organ and hits the wrong note.

Another possibility is that after thirty years of cowing your boss and treating your former co-workers with contempt, most of the latter have taken early retirement. When the new employees ask you to stop using ‘you guys’ you add a little sarcasm instead, and you talk loudly on the phone about the idiot new hires who think they can just waltz into your office and change everything.

All of this describes familiar scenarios, and it’s inevitable that when people work together any one of them or any number of others will arise. And so some of the work of work is negotiating these interpersonal relationships, avoiding or mitigating conflict. To this end, my opening question is foundational: If something doesn’t bother me, e.g. the F-word or ‘you guys’, why should I be bothered that it bothers you?

As noted, if we’re friends I might pay attention to what bothers you as not doing so might irreversibly damage our friendship. In a workplace environment, we might but needn’t be friends. My attentiveness to what bothers you can, and some argue should, be independent of whether I care about you — your opinions and your feelings — or not. Hence, the logic of office policies.

Office policies range from friendly suggestions to no-nonsense imperatives, from airy vision statements to rigid disciplinary protocols. At their best, clear guidelines for workplace behaviour mitigate some inevitable interpersonal pressure between co-workers. No one need argue about ‘you guys’ if it’s prohibited by a policy outlining protocols and practices aimed at gender inclusivity. But, without a doubt, some will argue.

A vague policy might have no teeth, a draconian policy might have too many. One employee might feel she has no recourse to protect her from ‘you guys’. Another that she has no recourse from being compelled to not say ‘you guys’. Either case might breed rancour in the workplace, and either might end up in front of an arbiter such as a company HR officer, a Human Rights Tribunal, or a judge. And so one reason I should be bothered that ‘you guys’ bothers you is to avoid this costly standoff.

It’s not just that I might lose the case or my job, it’s that even winning might be losing. If we both keep our jobs, the chill might have each of us wishing we’d held our tongue. If one or both of us quits, we each might be rendered unemployable. Who wants to hire a trouble maker?

Of course people can circumvent a policy, such as by leveraging peer pressure. If all of my co-workers decorate the office for International Women’s Day, it might be impossible for me to say ‘you guys’. If all of my co-workers decorate the office for a Men’s Rights Rally, it might be impossible for me to ask that no one says ‘you guys’. So if a policy prohibits the phrase ‘you guys’, the social environment might render the policy redundant. In which case, your co-workers needn’t be bothered at all that you’re bothered. You can join in or not, and if not, good riddance! Of course they might worry you’ll go postal. One way an individual can control an entire workplace is to keep ’em guessing!

If you need your job, you’re well advised to find a way to fit in. Thomas Hobbes calls this necessitated conformity ‘complaisance’, i.e. “that every man [sic] strive to accommodate himself [sic] to the rest […or else] be left or cast out of society as cumbersome thereunto” (Thomas Hobbes, A.P. Martinich and Brian Battiste, Eds, Leviathan, Broadview, 2011. Part I, Chapter XV, 17. pp 143, 144).

But aren’t there jobs that require one be both complaisant and not complaisant? Yes. And this requirement is not a contradiction, although it is a source of many conflicts. And it might be a pre-condition for creativity.

A complaisant philosopher is not a philosopher. The very discipline of philosophy hinges on non-complaisance. A satirist who doesn’t undermine complaisance is not a satirist. A complaisant comedian is a broke comedian. Complaisant news and media personalities are propagandists. And the difference between non-complaisance and complaisance on the front lines is whether you’ll be killed by us or them.

One exquisitely unique workplace is rife with some very complex problems of complaisance, the university. It hasn’t always been this way. Until, oh, less than a hundred years ago universities were theological schools. Complaisance then maintained an theological orthodoxy to which even the heterodox paid homage if he hoped to publish. Read, for example, Rene Descartes’ “Dedicatory Letter to the Sorbonne” at the beginning of his Meditations on First Philosophy. 

Now many universities, particularly those in western-style democracies, pledge to uphold principles of academic freedom; i.e. the freedom for a scholar to pursue research that might be not only unconventional and unpopular but also deemed offensive in the eyes of both colleagues and members of the lay public. But academic freedom is not a free-for-all. A scholar is obliged to maintain principles and practices of sound scholarship in pursuit of her research, and the university is obliged to protect her from discipline and/or dismissal for doing so. At least in terms of ideas, non-complaisance is regarded the path to progress and social flourishing.

“Let a hundred flowers bloom,” said Mao to his writers and intellectuals, “let a hundred schools of thought contend.” And the blooms proliferated until, just as his learned subjects feared, the heads were pinched from unwanted varieties and their roots hacked to pieces. Dissidents were executed or shipped off to be re-educated. When Mao said don’t be afraid to criticize your government, he meant come out here where I can get you!

The same kinds of interpersonal conflicts found in friendships and offices are found in universities. And so universities understandably write policies outlining protocols for dealing with sexual violence, gender inclusivity, and so on. But, as in Mao’s China, academics are rightly suspicious of some of these policies. University administrators claim that these policies are compatible with academic freedom. And some are. Such as those that are simply procedural, as in what to do if this or that situation arises. Like plagiarism. But others are anything but compatible. And some academics fear that while these policies pose as beneficent gardeners, they liberally sprinkle the salt of orthodoxy from their wagons.

Let’s go back to my example of ‘you guys’. Assume a university policy on Gender-Based & Sexual Violence has prohibited use of the phrase ‘you guys’ on the grounds that it is harmful because it’s not gender-inclusive. And bear in mind academic freedom includes the freedom for a professor to criticise university policies.

You’re a professor who diligently conforms to the policy’s prohibition on the use of ‘you guys’. You don’t address your class by saying, Listen up you guys! But you do teach Law and Public Policy, and you notice that the university’s Gender-Based & Sexual Violence policy’s prohibition on ‘you guys’ doesn’t stipulate that the phrase can’t be mentioned. And you take this example to teach your class the use/mention distinction: If I say, you guys have until 3 p.m. to hand in your essays I’ve used the phrase. But if I say, ‘you guys’ is a contentious term that some feel is gender non-inclusive, I have mentioned the phrase.

From the back row, the thud of a book dropped on a desk interrupts the class. A quavering voice rises over the silence that follows, You are not to say that phrase! You explain again the use/mention distinction and reread the line that prohibits the use of ‘you guys’, not its mention, to clarify your point. Things go from bad to worse. Shall we talk about it? you ask. The student storms out in tears, and all but a handful of students quietly close their books and follow. You continue your lesson.

At least one student has filed a complaint. You’re suspended pending an investigation, after which you’re called to a disciplinary hearing. At best, you’re issued a verbal warning. At worst, you’re fired. Most likely you’ve kept your job, perhaps on some agreement to make amends. But even having kept your job, something has changed.

So why should you be bothered that the phrase ‘you guys’ bothers the student? It certainly seems you didn’t suppress her ability to express herself freely since it was her free expression, backed by policy, that led to you being disciplined. And while you weren’t fired this time, you might not be so lucky the next. As for the student, you’ll never know whether she sought counselling to overcome the trauma of hearing ‘you guys’, whether she is smug, or remorseful, or, perhaps, has altogether forgotten the incident. But you see her face in those of every one of your new students and wonder when it will happen again.

Some colleagues wonder too, as any of them might be next. Others think you’ve got what you deserved. You go to enter the coffee room and overhear your friend and colleague of over thirty years say as much. As you pivot to return to your office, another colleague passing by whispers that he’s on your side. Before he proceeds to join the coffee gossip klatch denouncing you. Your future conversations with him are polite, and never any more than polite.

One worry is, just as when friends have reached an impasse, professor and student alike have become so hyper-vigilant about phrases such as ‘you guys’, one saying it and the other hearing it, conversations are stifled and eventually shut down.

Will there come a time, cf. Mao, that in the stead of a university there lies a barren field? And will viable seeds survive its dry, sterile soil?

Categories: Philosophy, Social and Political Commentary

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. I was an active scuba diver for about 20 years; I loved the sport. most of my diving partners were men because few women take up the sport. The biggest compliment I received while diving was being “just one of the guys”. To me it felt that my skill level was on par with the rest of the group and I was respected and accepted as “just one of the guys”. My how things have changed over the years. Oh, and by the way, I will fucking speak the way I fucking want to. It’s the only word that can be used as a noun, adjective, verb and adverb. Such versatility cannot be under valued.


  2. I have a question about this. My question assumes that being fully educated entails understanding the use/mention distinction.

    Pam describes a student storming out of the class upon hearing the phrase “you guys”. This kind of thing happens.

    Here are three possible explanations for the student’s behaviour:
    1) The student is too upset at the time to take in the use/mention distinction, and reacts as if the phrase has been used.
    2) The student understands the distinction, is not genuinely upset, but wants to bring down the professor.
    3) The student understands the distinction, but is genuinely triggered upon hearing “you guys”.

    Perhaps these explanations do not exhaust the possibilities, and some of the possibilities might be combined in complex ways. But to keep it simple, here’s the question: how often does the third explanation actually occur?

    The answer to the question has implications for university policies. If explanation 3 never occurs then universities need only figure out how to handle students falling under possibilities 1 and 2. To remain welcoming to all students this could be very difficult, but not impossible. But if 3 actually occurs then the only way a university can be an institution where students learn to understand the use/mention distinction is to proceed to trigger students who are incapable of understanding it.


  3. You describe very clearly just how complex and how risky it is to be living in a “call-out” culture. I am committed to bringing justice into all the areas where privilege used to be able to freely trample all over everything else, but this way of battling it certainly has unwanted consequences, even among those who are of good will. For the formerly powerless, new “power” to “bring ’em down” is tempting, I see. Sigh. How does one create an environment of respect, intelligence, fairness? Only one person who wants to stir the pot can do so much. . . . . Is legislating respect, intelligence, fairness the answer? Is that even possible? It’s certainly all fucked up, isn’t it?


  4. Interesting post and a clever way to discuss words that are “banned” from today’s usage. I have a question with regards to replacement of such words and phrases. I abhor and detest the word and I would never use it, but when someone does and is then taken to task for using the N word, the discussion consistently uses the replacement phrase, “the N word”. Everyone knows what the word is and I suspect in their mind the phrase is translated silently into the actual word. So how is using the phrase, “the N word”, any less of a trigger than saying the actual word. I saw an article where rather than using the phrase, a law professor used a capital N followed by 5 asterisks, when discussing a case where the actual word was in the written case, opinion and decision. He was promptly called out and chastised and removed from teaching the class. What mental gymnastics takes place to allow for the phrase to be acceptable but a symbolic spelling to be unacceptable?


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