Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Fuck "Civility:" If It's Civil, It Ain't Dissent

This article by Joan W. Scott in The Nation focuses on the academic thought police, but it applies broadly to attempts in workplaces, social events and especially politics to silence dissent with demands for faux civility.

Civility and niceness are the weapons of passive aggression, which is itself the greatest obstacle to free discussion and fact-finding.
Reminding his constituents that 2014 was the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, he called for civility in terms that should surprise anyone who has studied the First Amendment or the long history of academic freedom: “We can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin—the coin of open, democratic society.” Dirks seems to have forgotten that the Free Speech Movement was not an event characterized by civility either in its expression or in its suppression.

Most of these provosts also “believe that civility is a legitimate criterion in hiring and evaluating faculty members,” and most think that faculty incivility is directed primarily at administrators. The survey brought into the open what has perhaps long been an unarticulated requirement for promotion and tenure: a certain kind of deference to those in power.


As the social theorist Nancy Fraser has argued, the dissident claims of minority groups go unheard in the public sphere when they are tagged as departures from the protocols of style and decorum—dismissed as evidence of irrationality and so placed outside the realm of what is taken to be reasoned deliberation. They are, by definition, uncivil, and thus beneath contempt. Once a certain space or style of argument is identified as civil, the implication is that dissenters from it are uncivilized. “Civility” becomes a synonym for orthodoxy; “incivility” designates unorthodox ideas or behavior.

In all of these cases, it was the expression of what was taken to be a critical or radical opinion that led to the professor’s dismissal. “Civility”—or, as in the Koch and Davis cases, the notion of “academic responsibility” (the terms are equivalent)—became the watchword for unacceptable ideas as much as for indecorous behavior. “Incivility” pertained not so much to bad manners at the table as to verbal display, to speech—the free exercise of which is one of the fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy. In all of these cases, the boundary between style and substance was blurred. Whether the speech occurred inside the classroom or outside the walls of the university was irrelevant: What counted was its acceptability according to some prevailing norm. Citing John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, the AAUP investigating committee in the Koch case pointed out that “any serious application of the standard [of academic responsibility] would tend to eliminate or discourage any colorful or forceful utterance. More likely…the standard would be reserved as a sanction only for the expression of unorthodox opinion.”

Indeed, critical commentators on civility in the 18th century noted that it consisted of an “outward show,” somehow inauthentic, masking the reality of one’s attitudes and being. Mirabeau noted in the 1760s that civility only presents “the mask of virtue and not its face.”

And it is preferable to treat others with respect. But criticism—even angry criticism—is not necessarily a sign of disrespect. To point out that the meanings of words are not self-evident and that they can mask as much as they reveal is to respect language and thought. The real questions are: Who is calling for civility, and to what ends? What are the effects of policing classrooms and political forums in the name of civility? What has been the history of the invocation of that word?

Equally important is the need to insist on both the meaning of free speech as defined by the First Amendment and the conventional understandings of academic freedom. A letter to Wise from the leadership of the American Historical Association, protesting the justifications for her action in the Salaita case, pointed out that while civility might be a worthy ideal, it has nothing to do with the rights of free speech. The democratic public sphere, the AHA leaders argued, must rest “on the recognition that speech on matters of public concern is often emotional and that it employs a variety of idioms and styles. Hence American law protects not only polite discourse but also vulgarity, not only sweet rationality, but also impassioned denunciation.”

Civility, in other words, is beside the point!

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