Diversity and Inclusiveness Questioning the Language of Service

Questioning the Language of Service

By Gordon Marino

During my tenure at St. Olaf and other colleges, there has always been a lot of earnest talk about “giving back,” “serving others,” “working with” marginalized people, etc. The attitude behind these phrases has always seemed patriarchal, a la the fortunate ones generously sharing their gifts with the less fortunate. Even so, before becoming a professor, I took those cues to heart and was involved in a number of service organizations. But more than Habitat for Humanity or occasional tutoring, much of my “giving back” has involved teaching people how to give and take punches.

I have an extensive background in boxing. And so, for the last 25 years, I have spent many afternoons and evenings offering instruction to kids and young adults in the “sweet science.” Having coached football at the college level, I have to moan that training competitive boxers is more taxing, in part because it is not a seasonal sport but runs all-year. However, perhaps the aspect of it that I find most irritating is the fact that on competition days, which almost always fall on a Saturday, coach and boxer have to be at the arena for a medical checkup and weigh in hours before the event. A novice boxer is usually in near terror mode and you have to sit together for a raw-nerved afternoon alternating between edgy silences and kibitzing around, trying to keep things loose.

Poor me, there have been days when I have driven four hours each way, to have one boxer compete in a contest with three one minute rounds. But I have articles to write, lectures to prepare, and papers to grade! Is it any wonder that I got to patting himself on the back for being such a self-sacrificing guy? Then one shimmering Saturday morning I got a much-needed spiritual wake up call.

There is an on-going debate in philosophy as to whether or not arguments (logos) or stories (mythos) are the best vehicles of wisdom. Well, if you will bear with me, here is a tidbit of wisdom laden mythos.

A few years ago, I had just started training my one and only professional boxer, a 27-year old undocumented Mexican. Let’s call him “V.” Living out in the exurbs, we didn’t have our own gym so we would trek to sweat parlors up in the city.

At the time, V. had a factory job and was toiling long hours during the week. So, I pushed him to get a good workout in on Saturday while he was fresh and then let him relax on Sunday. One weekend, I made arrangements to go to a boxing training center to get some sparring. However, upon arrival I realized the gym would not be opening for another hour. There we were sitting in my old beat up pickup without much to say to one another since I only spoke baby Spanish and back then his English was rudimentary.

Truth be told, between silent curses, I was half thinking to myself what a martyr I was for doing this. After all, even though he was a pro, I wasn’t taking any money to train and manage him. Just the opposite, there were costs that I had to cover.

I like to think that I am deft at dealing with awkwardness and that I can cope with silence sans a lot of nervous chatter and fake laughter. But for some reason, Mr. Cool was feeling the heat that morning. We were just getting to know one another and again, there was the language barrier. Then out of nowhere the professor in me started thinking that V. has two kids and is a devoted dad. And one of the best predictors of success in the US is how many words you have heard in English as a child. There on the seat I happened to have a children’s book, The Big Porcupine, that I was going to donate to the library.

Almost on impulse and as though I were instructing V. to hit the heavy bag another round, I flipped the book to him and with some authority, asked him to read to me. He hesitated for a moment, smiled and then to my surprise, started boxing his way through this second grade reader. There are constellations of letters that don’t come up frequently if at all in Spanish, like “Sk” so he’d stumble whenever he hit the word “sky.” I’d correct him and we’d laugh, and then he would press on, strangely determined to finish the book. Then as V. was reading, I felt tears seeping to my eyes.

At first, I couldn’t imagine what chord V. had struck; then in a flash I realized that this hard scrabble pugilist was letting himself be vulnerable enough to let me in. It was a slap upside the head, and the message was bell-clear: Listen, you are not doing V. or any of the boxers you spend time with any great favors that they aren’t returning!  They are trusting you, flinging open the doors of their lives! You are sharing your lives together and that’s what it’s all about.

There is a much attention these days devoted to the way we talk to and address one another (e.g., micro-aggressions, trigger warnings).  That said, fifteen minutes with The Little Porcupine made me think thrice about the perhaps patronizing way in which some of us think of so-called “service.” It was not a mere intellectual epiphany.  It was an attitude adjustment, a profound recalibration in the way I felt about what I was doing and how I was spending my afternoons.

Kierkegaard taught that the mood in which we think about something whispers of the way we have appropriated that something. After that Saturday session, I went from a rather patronizing sense of feeling like the Good Samaritan to feeling privileged and grateful. Happily, this feeling of gratitude has migrated to my students at St. Olaf, who sometimes need a trainer for some extra sparring with the likes of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.


Gordon Marino is Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College. His The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age will be published by HarperOne in April.


  1. Gordon writes, “There is an on-going debate in philosophy as to whether or not arguments (logos) or stories (mythos) are the best vehicles of wisdom.”

    It seems the pervasive influence of religion in every time and place since the invention of agriculture might have long ago settled that debate.

    Or we could look to art. We can compare an intellectual analysis of death with the movie All That Jazz and see which touches the most people the most deeply.

    But the best method of all may be an artful blend of logos and mythos, such as you offered above.

  2. Hey, perhaps you could help APA members learn how to give and take punches too? We could share time together in this ring as well, right?

    Until then, I guess I’ll continue prancing around the ring in my pristine white unbloodied boxing shorts throwing devastating imaginary punches in to the empty air.

    I AM THE GREATEST!! I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! It’s time to rumble in the nerdy jungle! You guys are too ugly to be world class philosophers!

  3. “time to rumble in the nerdy jungle” love it! Thanks for your comment – and with you on the one-two combo of mythos-logos

  4. Thanks Gordon,

    While your article is too sensible to create much of an opportunity for rhetorical boxing (how rude!) I really liked the down to earth, common sense, plain talk, blue collar atmosphere of your post, a much needed addition to the realm of professional philosophy, imho.

    And I like the way you showed how the very human (well, ok, mostly male) need to compete and defeat can be channeled in to constructive experiences, even love. I think this applies to the art of philosophy as well, although as in boxing, the process can be somewhat loud and messy.

    Here’s an example. If we were able to have a sweaty 10 round boxing match on every article published here on APA we would sooner or later discover that every idea ever invented can be knocked to the mat by the right hands. No one person can do this, for we all have our limitations as philosophical boxers, but the group as a whole can. Whatever the idea, someone will always be able to knock it out.

    This insight would seem to put philosophy in the proper perspective, just as you did with boxing in your article. When we realize that all philosophies and philosophers are mortal and will sooner or later be defeated in the ring, when we realize that nobody ever really wins for long, then perhaps philosophy can take on much the same kind of constructive atmosphere as your article.

    Sure, we’re gonna wanna fight, and we’re gonna wanna win. That’s healthy, it means we’re alive. But when no final victory for anyone is possible, philosophy is less a life and death struggle of the monster male egos, and more just a sport which keeps us well exercised.


  5. Great analysis Gordon. I always appreciate your ability to write and to tap into our humanity. Our commitment to serve others reminds me of the words of Jesus, “the greatest among you shall be your servant.” When we realize that serving others helps us to hold or continue to reclaim our dignity as human beings.

  6. Gordon wrote, “There is a much attention these days devoted to the way we talk to and address one another…”

    Yes, and this political correctness power tripping moral crusade craze threatens to suck the life out of philosophical boxing. I mean look at this lifeless blog, lots of articulate one to many speeches based on the “we talk and you listen” model, but hardly a good argument to be found. Hardly a good argument to be found, on the blog of the American Philosophical Association. Does that not ring an alarm bell somewhere?

    It seems that real world boxing offers us a useful lesson of how philosophical boxing might be liberated from the political correctness curse. The two boxers jump in the ring and start pummeling each other with everything they’ve got. But if they’re pros they don’t take it personally. The boxing match is a contest, a test of strength and skill, a mechanism for elevating the best, not a personal attack. If uneducated blue collar boxers who can barely speak English can learn this, we can too.

    The logical flaw in the political correctness craze is the notion that one person can manage another person’s emotional situation. It’s a foolish attempt to manage the minds and mouths of an endless parade of strangers in place of focusing managing the one mind we have the most control over.

    This isn’t a Catholic site. It’s a philosophy site. Philosophy is supposed to be about logic. The logical action would be to shift the focus from the way we talk, to the way we hear. If we can successfully manage the way we hear we can jump in the ring and take the incoming blows with a smile.

    But what would you guys know about any of this, cause like I said above, you’re too ugly to be world class philosophers! C’mon guys, you’ve got a Phd or two, hit me for Christsake! Philosophy is not supposed to be lifeless.

  7. Phil,
    Thanks for your comment. The boxing trainer sense that you are itching for a fight. What do you want to argue about? How about political correctness/ present pieties in a discipline that is supposed to be so committed to raising and responding to foundational questions? Phil, could you give an example of where you think PC has stifled a good philosophical brawl. All the best.

  8. Hi Gordon,

    First, for those cases where you will serve the community as a boxing trainer, we really need to edit your name to Gordo! It’s just an “n”, c’mon, let it go. 🙂

    I’m itching for the kind of fight I attempted to describe above, a vigorous intellectual exchange where we all test our ability and the ideas, without taking the sweaty confrontations personally. You know, like pro boxers.

    So I come to this professional philosophy boxing ring every day looking for a match, but everyone is hiding in the sauna and won’t come out. 🙂 And so I am reduced to bellowing “I AM THE GREATEST!” to try to provoke a confrontation. But hey, it’s easy to be the greatest when you’re close to the only contestant.

    I have no problem using my real name on this site as the rules require, but just as an example, imagine that the comments were posted without screen names of any kind. What if no one could tell who said what, so it was only the ideas colliding as if on their own? Such a mechanism of separating posts from posters might assist in creating an environment where PC dogmas were irrelevant. And maybe it would make the professional academic philosophers with multiple PhDs less terrified of this blue collar blowhard’s awesome right jab? 🙂 I AM THE LOUDEST!!

    Imho, PC concerns are an obstacle to any examination of foundational questions because a discussion of group consensus assumptions is inevitably going to annoy somebody. The solution is for those affected to manage their own emotional situations, not to try to enforce a gag order on everyone else.

    Can I give an example of where PC has stifled a good philosophical brawl? Yes, here you go…


    I know PC is not the only limiting factor in this case, but I do sense it’s considered undignified to get sweaty in public, as if we are all 19th century gentlemen holding our mint julips on the veranda. As example, perhaps you saw the post about the gender pronoun stickers everyone is supposed to wear at APA conferences? Do I have to wear a sticker promising not to publicly embarrass the assembled dignitaries too?

    What resonated with me about your article was the marriage of articulate intellectual examination with a plain spoken down to earth blue collar sensibility. In my honking opinion, and as evidenced by this blog, professional philosophy is in dire need of such a marriage to make it more holistic, human, and relevant.

  9. I am a fan of your “honking opinion” but since we can’t seem to find a topic for a public 12 round brawl could you hit me on email. I am at St. Olaf College. Thanks, Phil.

  10. Here’s a topic for a 12 round brawl, cheerfully entitled….

    Philosophy Professors Are Stupid

    Philosophy Professors, and 80% of the rest of the country including me as well, are stupid. Here’s why.

    According to the Washington Post…

    “The top 20 percent of households actually own a whopping 90 percent of the stuff in America ….. Their average net worth? $3 million.”


    What this means is that 80% of Americans are competing with each other for 10% of the economy. And so, for instance, we can’t raise the minimum wage so that every citizen working 40 hours a week could actually support a family, because 90% of our nation’s wealth is serving the excessive desires of a relative few.

    I’m guessing most philosophy professors have a net worth of less than $3 million and thus are generally defined as being in the 80%. And even though they have advanced educations which make them masters of logic, they seem on average not to fully grasp that the reason there is limited funding for the humanities is actually very simple, 90% of America’s wealth is off the table, having been siphoned off by the rich.

    Shall I continue? Round Two?

    Thousands of nuclear missiles around the globe stand by on hair trigger alert primed to quickly erase everything human beings have worked so hard to build over the last 500 years. The enormity of this widely agreed upon real world fact is nearly impossible to express in words.

    And yet all of us, including philosophy professors who are masters of logic, go about our daily lives almost entirely ignoring the fact that our extreme recklessness threatens not only our lives and that of our children, but those of many generations to come. As example of this willful blindness, in the recent Presidential election nuclear weapons were barely mentioned.

    What are philosophy professors doing about this existential threat to everything that matters? Using fancy talk language no one can understand to write about obscure arcane topics no one is interested in. That is, fiddling while Rome burns.

    DING! Round Three!

    Our culture is built upon a simplistic, outdated and dangerous “more is better” relationship with knowledge. An ever accelerating knowledge explosion will inevitably give us more power than we can handle. More and more powers of various kinds will reach the scale of nuclear weapons, with the potential to crash civilization. Sooner or later we’ll have that one bad day when we lose control of one of these ever growing range of vast powers.

    This is very simple! What would happen if you gave your kids more and more and more power at an ever accelerating rate without end? What happens to change that equation on their 18th birthday? Nothing!

    I don’t blame the average man in the street for not getting this because the “more is better” relationship with knowledge has worked wonderfully for a long time. I don’t even blame scientists anymore because I now see that the reductionist nature of their enterprise makes it impossible for them to fully grasp the big picture.

    I blame philosophy professors, because it should be their job to stand back, see the big picture, and help us explore the boundaries of these deeply held cultural assumptions.


    Is it fair to aim these charges at philosophy professors when these are cultural wide realities? Yes, it’s not only fair, it’s a complement, because the premise of this piece is that we desperately need highly intelligent very well educated masters of reason to pop the bubble of the dangerously blind group consensus.

    However, in the light of the above reasoning and facts, I hereby declare professional academic philosophy to be sound asleep, and the only question remaining would seem to be which of us has a strong enough punch to wake it up?

    See? There’s no problem finding topics for a public 12 round brawl. They’re right there waiting for anyone who wants them.


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