Civility is for suckers: Campus hypocrisy and the "polite behavior" lie

When campus administrators hide behind the fig-leaf of "community," they're usually protecting a powerful agenda

Published September 10, 2014 8:39PM (EDT)

There has recently been a rash of statements from college and university administrators, insisting that “civility” be maintained on campus.  In its pronouncement on the Steven Salaita (who has previously written for Salon) case--in which an official offer of a tenured appointment was withdrawn after wealthy donors threatened to cancel their checks to the University of Illinois because of their displeasure at the professor’s anti-Israel tweets--the UI board of trustees went so far as to say, “we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship [emphasis added].”

One problem is, of course, what counts as “civility”?  As June Jordan brilliantly and passionately tells us, evocations of civility are inevitably covering up one thing or another: "The purpose of polite behavior is never virtuous. Deceit, surrender, and concealment: these are not virtues. The goal of the mannerly is comfort, per se…. Most often, the people who can least afford to further efface and deny the truth of what they experience, the people whose very existence is most endangered and, therefore, most in need of vigilantly truthful affirmation, these are the people—the poor and the children—who are punished most severely for departures from the civilities that grease oppression.  If you make and keep my life horrible then, when I can tell the truth, it will be a horrible truth; it will not sound good or look good or, God willing, feel good for you either.”  Salaita’s tweets, protesting in a sharp, biting, and passionate manner the killings of over 400 innocent Palestinian children and thousands more, were not meant to make anyone feel good—they were meant to both grieve the dead and call out their murderers.  And that cost him a job—on the grounds that he was “uncivil.”

Now, who gets to determine what “civil” behavior and speech is, and what is not?  Even as administrators espouse the value of “community” it is clear that the final arbiters of civility are they themselves.  And this is what makes signing on to civility something one should think twice about—civility is in the eye of the powerful. And if one believes that it will protect one against homophobic, racist, sexist, and emphatic political speech of all stripes in an even and “democratic” manner, one should first look at the case history of civility, and its relation to free speech.

As a matter of fact, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nick Dirks chose to evoke civility in an email he sent out commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley.  He writes: “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. Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech, therefore, we should do so by exercising it graciously.”

At first glance, what is there to object to?  But one only has to stop a moment and ask what these high-sounding but vague terms actually mean in action.  Where would the boundaries be drawn around “courtesy,” and “respect,” and what are the criteria for “meaningful” exchanges?  Again, it is in the eye of those in power, and in challenging their judgment we may be construed as acting disrespectfully.  And, face it, the Free Speech Movement was all about not endowing people with respect and deferring to them simply because they were at the top of the hierarchy.  But today’s evocations of “civility” have something very specific in mind—as in the Salaita case, it is criticism of Israel that is seen to be especially offensive.

As my colleague Katherine Franke points out, Gary Tobin, Aryeh Weinberg, and Jenna Ferer published The Uncivil University: Politics and Propaganda in American Education in 2005.  Not surprisingly, they begin their book by evoking the Free Speech Movement, only to immediately limit it by evoking the notion of civility.  They note the inscription at Sproul Plaza commemorating the FSM, which reads, “This soil and the air space extending above it shall not be a part of any nation and shall not be subject to any entity’s jurisdiction.” Then they negate that: “Despite the myth surrounding the seal and its ring of soil, it is not—it cannot be—an absolute sanctuary for those who wish to abuse the right of free speech, because no such place exists… Both the rules of the larger society and the social norms of the campus require reasonable boundaries on what can be said.  Perhaps the campus has fewer constraints, but safety and civility necessitate that some limits are imposed.”

After briefly mentioning an anecdote wherein some African American and Latino colleagues ostensibly complain of “incivility,” the book turns to focus specifically and exclusively on criticism of Israel, which it argues is exactly the same as anti-semitism:

This volume examines one particularly egregious and uncivil violation of public trust—the ideology and expression of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in higher education.  We examine these two closely-related prejudices on college campuses, because the presence of anti-Semitism in a community has always been a reliable indicator of its ill health.  In a civil university, no group is singled out for slander, no democratic nation is declared illegitimate, no political ideology warps the pursuit of truth…  And yet, Jewish students report being intimidated, both inside and outside the classroom, and being intellectually and socially threatened for what they believe.  In many universities that otherwise consider themselves to be models of civility, anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism are not only tolerated but allowed to flourish.

Not only are “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Israelism” conflated here, but also note that although “no group” should be slandered, it is specifically the presence of anti-Semitism that may serve as a “reliable” indicator of an institution’s ill health.  It bears noting once again that the Department of Education has responded thus to complaints that Jewish students feel threatened on campuses and should be protected from anti-Israel protests: “In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful [emphasis added] is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.”  Yet not only are administrators now charged with enforcing the civility code, but they are also faced with boards of trustees that are pressing them to do so, even if it means short-circuiting faculty governance.  Consider this blurb for The Uncivil University:

The one-sided coercive atmosphere prevalent on so many of our campuses is depriving an entire generation of the kind of education they deserve. When it comes to social, political, religious, and ideological matters, the academy has too often shown a pronounced preference for only one perspective. As this important book makes clear, it is high time for all of us to insist that colleges promote a civil yet robust exchange of ideas—the very foundation of a liberal education. (Anne Neal, president, American Council of Trustees and Alumni).

This organization is particularly significant.  As Michael Meranze has pointed out, ACTA, which was co-founded by Lynne Cheney and rose to prominence during the Iraq War, has recently issued a statement that argues for boards of trustees to be more activist; it reads in part:

Trustees must have the last word when it comes to guarding the central values of American higher education--academic excellence and academic freedom [emphasis added].  The preservation of academic freedom, freedom of expression, and the integrity of scholarship and teaching rightly falls under their purview.  While the occasions should be rare, they must be prepared to intervene when internal constituencies are unable or unwilling to institute urgently needed reforms.

It is instructive to compare the original target of ACTA activism and its target today. In 2001, ACTA published a pamphlet entitled “ Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It,” which contained a list of 115 “suspicious” statements protesters made that were worthy of concern.  Here are some examples from that list: “[We should] build bridges and relationships, not simply bombs and walls,” and “[I deplore those] who are deploying rhetoric and deploying troops without thinking before they speak,” and “There is a lot of skepticism about the administration’s policies of going to war.”  Today, ACTA’s aim is toward anti-Israel protests, but like its attack on anti-war activism, it uses speech control, now in the guise of “civility” management.

Dirks himself has rehearsed and reinforced the notion that criticism of Israel is anti-semitic and that the feelings of Jewish students should be protected—precisely the argument we find in the Salaita case. A group of six Columbia University professors wrote a piece in Mondoweiss in which they describe Dirks’ attempt to dissociate himself from a campaign to divest from companies that manufacture or sell arms or other military hardware utilized by Israel.  In an interview he gave upon his appointment to the chancellorship at Berkeley, he denies ever signing a divestment petition, but he goes further. Dirks describes the climate at Columbia as one in which “it seemed very difficult for some [Jewish] students to find safe spaces in which to talk about Israel where they didn’t feel that the basic context in which they found themselves wasn’t hugely not just anti-Israel, but by implication, anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic.”  He accepts the proposition that the protection of feelings trumps free speech.

And yet, as Gautam Premnath informs me, another group of Columbia faculty published an article that states: “the very committee set up by then-Vice President Dirks found no evidence whatever for concerns about the climate for Jewish students let alone about the nature of instruction in our department. We feel affronted by the fact that the Chancellor's defaming the department means that he now rejects the committee’s finding and seems instead to accept as true the false accusations leveled against us by an external hate group that has since been exposed and discredited.”  This fact just makes one more aware of how those in power can cobble together very selective notions of “civility” aimed at particular targets, and even more appalled by Dirks’ distasteful and opportunistic appropriation of the Free Speech Movement anniversary.

The Free Speech Movement aimed its critique at many things, including attacks on democracy and democratic process, and the unilateral determination of the educational process by administrators and their bosses—boards of trustees and regents.  As we read accounts of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise rushing to appease wealthy donors, as we see her rescinding Salaita’s employment on the assumption that the Board of Trustees will override her recommendation, we can’t help but think that this is the kind of lack of civility that bears noting, where due process is uncivilly cast aside to give way to power, and where community is destroyed.

We need to listen to Mario Savio, instead of Nick Dirks.  Savio’s firebrand speech on the steps of Sproul Hall in 1964 has a particular moment worth noting here and now, as we are talking about college administrators and boards of trustees and regents:

“We have an autocracy which runs this university. It’s managed. We asked the following: if President Kerr actually tried to get something more liberal out of the Regents in his telephone conversation, why didn’t he make some public statement to that effect? And the answer we received — from a well-meaning liberal — was the following: He said, “Would you ever imagine the manager of a firm making a statement publicly in opposition to his board of directors?” That’s the answer! Now, I ask you to consider: if this is a firm, and if the Board of Regents are the board of directors, and if President Kerr in fact is the manager, then I’ll tell you something: the faculty are a bunch of employees, and we’re the raw material! But we’re a bunch of raw material[s] that don’t mean to have any process upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings!”

Savio obviously deplores the analogy the “liberal” makes between the Chancellor and the Board of Regents—but note too that he deplores the way that relation is depicted, as the manager shuddering at the thought of uncivilly criticizing his bosses in public.  The Free Speech Movement was all about non-conformity, about not being “processed” into a product. It was about freedom to be uncivil, not as a goal in itself, but as a necessary freedom toward a greater kind of liberation of the human spirit.  That is how we should remember and honor it.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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Campus Civility Steven Salaita