[I]n this “academics as blood sport” model, the goal is not to grow. The goal is not to reach a consensus, or to get to the bottom of a thorny problem in the text, or to hash out a controversial point. The goal is to make the other person look as stupid as possible. The goal is to, as a friend once put it, “whip it out and measure it.” Women play at it sometimes, but this is a game for men.
Ideally speaking: No, probably yes, yes, maybe, no, and no. Let me explain.
The "blood sport" model, at its heart, is an articulation of the belief that academic discussion is most fruitful when proponents of particular positions are willing to "let their hands go" (to adopt language from my favorite blood sport, boxing). We should press weaknesses, probe implications, attack shoddy reasoning, all in pursuit of making each participant present their best possible case. We develop intellectually by challenging and being challenged as strongly as possible; what remains at the end is indubitably stronger than what came before. I often say that one of the reasons I wanted to attend the University of Chicago for law school was because I wanted to "put myself through the fire"; that is, I wanted to be placed in an environment where I knew I would be challenged to the greatest possible extent, knowing that I could only develop by facing the most advanced and vocal advocates of alternative positions. J.A. Hodnicki gives similar advice to junior faculty members deciding where to present their works in progress.
Though I don't think it's bound to it, I also think the "blood sport" approach is tied intricately to the position of philosophical agonism expounded by writers like Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. Agonists believe that, at root, disagreement will never be expunged from democratic societies. Mouffe, in a quote I've referenced before, claims that holding out "consensus" as a paramount goal in a pluralist democracy actually threatens democracy itself:
To believe that a final resolution of conflicts is eventually possible...far from providing the necessary horizon of the democratic project, is something that puts it at risk. Indeed, such an illusion implicitly carries the desire for a reconciled society where pluralism would be superseded. When pluralist democracy is conceived in such a way, it becomes a self-refuting ideal because the very moment of its realization coincides with its disintegration.[Chantal Mouffe, Democracy and Pluralism: A Critique of the Rationalist Approach, 16 Cardozo L. Rev. 1533, 1544 (1995)]
Consensus, in this view, is a trap: it means consensus on grounds acceptable to the empowered classes. There is not always a true consensus to be had, no "bottom" to get down to. Collaborativeness is another word for exclusivity, because we're not all just trying to achieve the same thing. I concur with Mouffe and others in that I believe that many value disputes are fundamentally irreducible, and that this is something we simply have to accept as members of the deliberative community.* Even Iris Marion Young, queen of the deliberative democrats, believes that "rational" discourse only requires that the parties come in with an aim, rather than a guarantee, of agreement. I agree with this as well -- I don't think we should pick fights just for their own sake -- but Young certainly is keenly aware of the illiberal risks in demanding agreement when disagreement still lingers.
But this is getting far afield. The point is that, believing that political conflict is inevitable and indeed desirable, the agonist political project is centered around managing it so that there still exists a basic framing of mutual respect. Since we can't ground mutual respect on some form of "we're all really working for the same thing" (because we're not -- at least not necessarily), it must be located elsewhere. And in this, agonists find the "blood sport" metaphor to be very helpful. Samuel Chambers writes:
Agonism implies a deep respect and concern for the other; indeed, the Greek agon refers most directly to an athletic contest oriented not merely toward victory or defeat, but emphasizing the importance of the struggle itself-a struggle that cannot exist without the opponent. Victory through forfeit or default, or over an unworthy opponent, comes up short compared to a defeat at the hands of a worthy opponent-a defeat that still brings honor. An agonistic discourse will therefore be one marked not merely by conflict but just as importantly, by mutual admiration.
I think this is tremendously illuminating. There is a considerable amount of literature on the different discussion styles of men and women, including how men often simply try and bludgeon their way to "victory" by blunt verbal force. This is an example of "victory by default", and it is not truly legitimate. The true agonist does not wish to claim victory simply because he's rigged the discursive rules in his favor. The struggle is only valid when everyone is in a position where they can participate as strongly and ably as they are capable of. Consequently, persons who conceive of themselves as participants in a "blood sport" view of academics should work actively to insure a level playing field amongst the participants; not taking advantage of structural or contingent advantages (think Inigo Montoya's sword fight with Wesley in The Princess Bride). That means avoiding, not reinforcing, gendered modes of silencing or shutting down alternative perspectives.
There is an (unfortunately, mostly liberal) conceit that the participants in blood sports are all ruthless, cutthroat savages, and a consequent conflation of "blood sport" with "win at all costs". This is quite far from the truth. In most blood sports, one observes an important dynamic of respect between the players; and disrespect for those who care only about winning but do not respect their adversary. Boxers often talk a lot of trash before the fight begins to sell tickets, but nearly invariably they will embrace afterward and have naught but high praise for each other. I still remember Bernard Hopkins -- immediately after handing Kelly Pavlik the first loss of his career -- going to the younger man's corner and giving him some fighting advice, promising him that he would one day become the best in the world. The agonist debater should likewise see his or her project as facilitating the mutual development of themselves and their interlocutor as advocates.
The ethos of the "blood sport" is one steeped in language of glory and honor. But the persons who engage in self-aggrandizing pugnaciousness to prove that they're the smartest guy in the room are running quite far afield from this ideal.** They are not behaving honorably. They are fighting for themselves, when they should be fighting for the greater ideal of illumination and elucidation, or at the very least making all participants the best they can be as advocates and proponents of their causes. Moreover, agonist struggle implies a willing and eager partner: forcing someone who does not wish to fight into a debate context is as incompatible with agonist ideals as a boxer picking a random guy out at a bar and pummeling him senseless. The agonist does hold -- properly in my view -- that if one does wish to enter the fora of public deliberation, then one can't demand that everyone put aside their difference and "collaborate" together.*** But not everyone wants to be in the fora all the time, or on all subjects.
I do believe that the best academic discussions are ones in which eager and talented participants are trading their best shots at one another. But not everyone is in a position to do that. Some people aren't eager. Some people don't know enough to be thrown in with the sharks yet. Predators seek out these persons because they want another notch in their "W" column, but there is no true honor in that. There are, after all, models of combat which are premised on building someone up rather than taking them down (e.g., a sparring session), and this too ought be (and I believe is) incorporated into a true agonist frame. In this way, conflict and collaboration are reconciled.
Debate ought to be an honorable activity. Many persons, unfortunately, do not practice it in this way. They relish victory for its own sake, with no regard for their partner and with no purpose other than victory. But whatever else it is, that sort of behavior is not consistent with the ethos of the blood sport.
* Even if disputes over values can't always be dissolved, this doesn't mean that debate is futile. There are still several important functions debate can serve. First, it can solve factual disagreements masquerading as value disputes (e.g., what tax policy is most beneficial to the nation's poorest?). Second, it can reveal the reasons advocates have for their position and the passion with which they hold them, which may be important to people who base their decisions in part on the opinions of others. Third, it can clarify the interplay between various disconsonent values which may be implicated in any given dispute, forcing people to reveal what values they are giving up or sublimating in order to adhere to their position.
** There are actually two distinct problems here. On the one hand, there is the guy who doesn't know a lot, and masks it by being unreasonable aggressive and belligerent. This is obnoxious if for no other reason than it forces more advanced participants in a discussion to continually hash out basic 101 material. But sometimes, the best response to the sort of person really is just to crack his skull a bit. A systematic evisceration of his "analysis" may inspire more humility next time.
On the other hand, there is the person who really does know a lot about the subject at hand, but uses that knowledge to crush the more incipient or inchoate ideas of his less knowledgeable or confident fellows. The violation here is the one I focus on above -- it is preying on less experienced or willing adversaries, before they can pose any serious challenge or threat. Eventually, the student may become the master, but only if the master doesn't systematically squash all his students as babes.
*** Consider how White feminists used this line of argument to silence dissident voices of women of color; arguing that those differences should be pushed aside precisely because they would threaten the collaborative nature of the women's movement -- "coming together as women". I'm not sure why, faced with White feminist leaders who claimed to care about racism but systematically ignored it in word and deed, women of color should not have attempted to draw some blood in response.