Unruly Voices

“Unruly Voices,” by Mark Kingwell

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In his home country of Canada, Mark Kingwell is something of a celebrity philosopher—a public intellectual who, in addition to writing many readable books and winning teaching accolades, makes frequent television appearances and has a carefully crafted jeans-and-sneakers persona. He has also been called a “hipster philosopher.” His books include volumes on cocktails, fly fishing, the pianist Glenn Gould, and the Empire State building. He’s published a rambling meditation on the urban experiences of New York and Shanghi; a collection of his own essays to which he added private asides, coquettishly titled Marginalia; and, with Joshua Glenn, a glossary of terms relating to work and another on idleness. Several books have been best-sellers, such as In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac, which Kingwell proudly describes as a “self-help book for people who hate self-help books.”

Kingwell’s style is to gather glittery scraps from the cultural miasma swirling about him to punctuate his arguments, such that individual essays are as meandering as the breadth of his corpus. A representative essay on the virtues of not-working mentions in short order Occupy Wall Street, Cary Grant’s character in Holiday (1938), Bertrand Russell, the Third Reich, Thomas Carlyle, J.M. Barrie, Noël Coward, Jeremy Bentham, Serbo-Croatian War, the Iron Law of Oligarchy, Guy Debord, the author’s disgust with Ivy League schools, and this is a very partial list. His references are high brow, low brow, and entirely left field, as when he considers the side effects of his experiments with Prozac with a particularly Canadian idiom: “I was finding it harder to—how can I say it—put the puck in the net.” When Kingwell castigates another writer for “banal delivery” the implication is clear: banality is one writerly sin he is loath to commit.

As might be evident from this list, Kingwell seems less interested in practicing philosophy than in defining what exactly it means to be a philosopher. He adamantly believes philosophers have an obligation to grapple with popular culture, though he admits it’s a minority opinion, and one that leaves him vulnerable to criticism that he is not a serious scholar. He illustrates the point with an anecdote at the beginning of his book on happiness. As a job applicant for an academic position, he is asked, as is routine, to give a lecture at the institution of his prospective employer. Kingwell performs well enough, though he wonders at the tittering girls in the back row. In the men’s room afterwards, he discovers his fly is unzipped. He shares this mortifying tidbit, he writes, because for a philosopher to select a topic so prone to platitudes as happiness is similarly an act of self-exposure. Philosophizing with your fly unzipped, metaphoric or not, is risky business. And yet he presses on with his particular blend of first-person narrative and socio-political commentary, studded throughout with various nuggets of Western philosophy. Indeed, his most recent publication, Unruly Voices: Essays on Democracy, Civility, and the Human Imagination, is his seventeenth book.

Mark Kingwell

Mark Kingwell

Unruly Voices is comprised of essays previously published in various periodicals, including Harper’s magazine, where Kingwell is a contributing editor, and Canada’s preeminent The Walrus. True to form, Kingwell offers a smorgasbord of commentary. On the various roles of public intellectuals he helpfully articulates the difference between Malcom Gladwell-types and Slavoj Žižek-types. His musings on America as being defined by nothing so much as an insatiable appetite for more, a land in which giganticism is a goal in and of itself, gleam with his understanding of place as bound by its narratives. He introduces the concept of “misanthropic humanism,” a version of liberal humanism that is less celebratory and more humble, willing to admit the gaffes and petty sadism of humanity. As with all of his writing, Kingwell’s personal voice guides these essays. The eager, verbose, and quick-witted tone is occasionally marred by Kingwell’s apparent self-regard as the lone voice of reason in a world run amok; despite the sneakers, he comes off as an habituated curmudgeon, for instance, when he compares text messaging to crack cocaine.

The core essay of the collection is on discursive civility, a topic to which Kingwell has returned many times in his career, beginning with his first book, in 1995, A Civil Tongue: Justice, Dialogue, and the Politics of Pluralism. The essay “Fuck You and Other Salutations” begins by cleaving civility from mere politeness. At best, politeness is a set of customs that lubricate social interactions—the word derives from the Latin “to polish.” At worst, politeness gives the pretense of virtue where none exists, functioning instead as “a smokescreen for traditional vice.” It is not virtuous to restructure a company so as to exploit low level workers to increase company profit, but it is possible to conduct such dirty business in an exceedingly polite manner.

Politeness governs things like how to pick your teeth, while civility affects the political process. Kingwell calls it “the political air we must all breathe to negotiate our differences.” Democracy is impossible, he argues, when incivility prevails. Conservative provocateur Ann Coulter recently tweeted that Obama was a “retard,” and many protested the comment as a slur at the disabled; Kingwell would argue much further, that such incivility strikes at the heart of democracy. It may be a surprise that he treats seriously speech that is sophomoric, misinformed, or retaliatory, but he comes to his argument through an understanding of political discourse as fundamentally competitive. In political speech exchange, there is a winner and a loser, and the tone of the discourse is driven by the need to win. Setting aside the ambiguities of what exactly it means to win, Kingwell points out that arguments that lack logic or reason tend to resort to incivility to gain traction. And, as anyone who’s watched a middle school fist fight knows, one act of incivility begets another of greater degree. The 2010 Citizens United ruling is especially disastrous in this regard, because it provides the means to lob insults and accusations without culpability. The opposition returns the volley, and the incivility factor is sent ricocheting skyward (as are campaign costs), leaving true political debate far behind.

Kingwell makes a cogent rebuttal to the logic of attack ads, though he leaves some murkiness left unspoken. His argument promoting civility is eminently logical (i.e. incivility is self-defeating), but it’s common knowledge that humans sometimes arrive at their political behavior through reasoning that is resolutely illogical. Like many commentators on the left, Kingwell seems unable or uninterested in squarely addressing the moral fervor with which some citizens hold some beliefs—a fervor that, on occasion, trumps their concerns with civility or democracy, and is likely to remain unfazed by arguments such as Kingwell’s. Yet, this broad-minded collection of essays carries its own anecdote. As Kingwell writes in his introduction, it is philosophy, along with poetry and art, that has the extraordinary power to “expand our ethical imaginations.” A robust democracy will need both ground rules for civil discourse and citizens with imagination enough to understand the stakes of the game.


Sasha Archibald is a curator and writer based in Los Angeles. More from this author →