ah, civility

If you have any interest in the continuing controversy of the Steven Salaita affair, or academic freedom in general, or the fetish for civility and the way it is used to suppress unpopular political opinion, you really have to read this post from Corey Robin. In it, Dr. Jean O’Brien, professor of history and chair of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota, communicates via email with Chris Kennedy of the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign. If you ever needed proof that invocations of civility are deployed selectively as a way to quiet criticism and meet the needs of establishment power, here it is.

Elizabeth Stoker Bruening wrote a really sharp essay on the notion of civility recently. As she writes

It’s not an accident that civility forces you to adopt the framework it is premised upon — the one which preferences no values, which automatically considers all arguments potentially equal in merit, the one which supposes the particular aesthetics of the afternoon salon produce the richest debates, and that the richness of a debate is really its goal. It’s not an accident because — as even people who argue for civility will tell you — civility is about, at some level, establishing common ground. Supposedly this works the arguers to a mutually satisfactory resolution.

But there simply isn’t always common ground, and to be artificially placed on common ground is necessarily to lose some of the ground you were holding. So if you are arguing, for instance, that poor people are being mistreated, should be angry about it, and should lobby for change — civility will force you to give up the ‘angry’ part, or at least to hide it. But that was part of your ground! Now you’ve been muzzled.

Which explains Salaita’s tweets very well. Whatever else is true, this is true: Salaita was reacting to the killing of hundreds of children, and to a corresponding refusal by the American press to judge that killing with the sort of moral clarity that we would normally associate with the killing of hundreds of children. Indeed, it was the media’s “civility” about massive slaughter that was the target of his ire, and mine, and thousands of other people. The notion that he must adopt the master’s tools and speak civilly about the inappropriate deployment of civility is perverse, and inarguably undercuts the rights to free expression that UIUC has always claimed it supports.

Civility is the discourse of power. If you’re Chris Kennedy– yes, one of those Kennedys– and you’ve been bathed in power your entire life, you might mistake that civility for some sort of value neutral, friendly idiom of the exchange of ideas. But then, you’ve also been talking to people your whole life who you have power over and who therefore fear you. And so, when pressed, you may not even notice when you slip into disrespect and insult the way he does here. That’s what civility is, in real life: the powerful telling us that we must speak to them with deference and respect, while they are under no similar responsibility to us.


  1. Re the O’Brien/Kennedy exchange to which you link, what observation am I supposed to draw from this exchange? The initial O’Brien note, which looks like an unsolicited one, is incredibly aggressive and offensive out of the gate. I thought Kennedy’s response was both witty and merited.

    What am I missing here?

    1. Public officials can not receive “unsolicited” exchanges. The nature of being a public official is to receive comments, requests and other forms of “exchange”. Being a public official means you are soliciting responses from the public.

      The choice a public official has – is how they respond to these “exchanges”.

      Kennedy responded like a frat-boy.

      1. Yes, public officials can receive unsolicited notes. Unsolicited notes are ones ones not requested or invited by the recipient.

  2. I’ll quote the note from O’Brien:

    “Dear Trustee Kennedy:

    I will be brief: please reverse your cowardly decision to “un-hire” Steven Salaita in the name of justice, humanity, civility, and in defense of academic freedom. Your actions have already damaged your great University so deeply that it is difficult to imagine reversing that damage, but this would be one small step. The world is watching. If you take seriously your capacity as a trustee, then please act in compliance with the expectation such a position demands of you.

    On a personal note, several years ago, I was offered the position of Director of Native American Studies at Illinois that Robert Warrior now performs so ably. The actions of the University demonstrate in no uncertain terms that I never made a better decision than to turn that offer down. I only hope that the stellar program he has painstakingly built will not be completely undone.

    Jean O’Brien
    Professor, Department of History
    Chair, Department of American Indian Studies
    University of Minnesota”

    I read the exchange and thought O’Brien’s note was spectacularly badly written. I assume Kennedy and O’Brien don’t know each other or haven’t interacted recently. Then I read Corey’s comment: “This is not the response of a highly professional administration in control of itself. This is the bitter voice mail of a peevish lover drunk-dialing in the middle of the night.” This comment seems to perfectly apply to O’Brien’s note, which I think might very well have been written and sent while highly inebriated (you’d hope for her sake). I’m puzzled about how this illustrates what (I think) Freddie intends.

    1. I think that you are a perfect example of what I’m referring to in this post.

      By the way: it is the job of a member of the Board of Trustees– indeed, one of the few jobs of a member of the Board of Trustees– to be part of the public face of a university.

      1. Freddie – Your post and 5:56pm post aren’t clear to me, since in my perspective O’Brien’s note was just so stupidly unproductive. So I ask for clarification, and you respond with:

        “I think that you are a perfect example of what I’m referring to in this post.”

        You don’t know the least thing about me and you respond with an insult. Is your point so weak that you need to resort to this?

        As far as I can tell, the point is that academic Trustees who have made controversial hiring decisions need to be able to respond politely to comically abusive unsolicited comments. But it is justified for an academic with tenure at one state university system to send abusive and dumb notes to this Trustee. At least, spell out the reason why you think one is justified and the other isn’t.

        1. Oh trust me — I don’t intend to insult. I am saying instead that your perception of respect and deference, and who owes it to whom, seems to me bound up with your perception of power.

          1. OK, thanks for the clarification. Let me answer your point seriously: you are right that there are events that would cause any normal, moral person to respond with unchecked anger, such as killings of children. But O’Brien isn’t responding to such an event. She’s angry that the UofI rescinded an offer to a tenured academic. That action is a professional disagreement that doesn’t justify such an ill-considered note.

            (Also, I understood that the University Chancellor refused to forward the Salaita offer to the Board of Trustees. If that’s the case – and correct me if I’m wrong – I believe the note to Kennedy was prompted by that Sept 3 Crooked Timber post? So this note is part of a group of notes sent to people who appear not to have been involved in the decision.)

            My perception of respect and deference to power or the possible existence of war crimes in Gaza has nothing to do with my view of the exchange. It has everything to do with one academic’s social incompetence.

        2. my understanding is that the entire point is how those in power employ the niceties of discourse self-servingly, such that a lack of civility can be grounds for revoking a position from the prospective academic even as the people making these decisions fail to live up to their own standards.

  3. <blockquoteWhich explains Salaita’s tweets very well. Whatever else is true, this is true: Salaita was reacting to the killing of hundreds of children, and to a corresponding refusal by the American press to judge that killing with the sort of moral clarity that we would normally associate with the killing of hundreds of children. Indeed, it was the media’s “civility” about massive slaughter that was the target of his ire, and mine, and thousands of other people.

    Exactly. This was the one that did it for me:
    Missile at beachside Gaza cafe finds patrons poised for World Cup
    http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/11/world/middleeast/missile-at-beachside-gaza-cafe-finds-patrons-poised-for-world-cup.html?_r=0 [Note: They changed the headline after an uncivil outcry, but you can still see it in the URL]

    I was on my honeymoon during most of the World Cup. I woke up at 4am Vietnam time to watch the Oranje play Argentina in the Semi-Final. At the exact same time, Israel killed a bunch of people watching the game, for no reason whatsoever, without notice or reasonable justification. And to see the NYT invoke the passive voice, as if these missiles just randomly situated themselves at a cafe, Howdy, hi, I’ll be one of your missiles this evening, can I interest you in a cappuccino? Or perhaps unnecessary death? , is simply infuriating. I’m not Palestinian. I’m just a liberal American Jew (who used to identify with Zionism, but now subordinates my sense of Zionism to my duties and obligations to all of humanity) who has no real connection to the Palestinian people per-se. And I broke down balling. Like, the fact that these people were watching the exact same game as I, at the same time, and they were obliterated. And the NYT can’t even call it for what it was, Israel slaughters World Cup watchers in latest attack on civilians. I was outraged. I was furious at the media apologists. I was thinking, like one of Salaita’s (in)famous tweets, if you’re defending Israel right now, you’re an awful person.

    But, the Salaita’s of the world aren’t allowed to express emotion or anger, justified or not. They’re just supposed to take it and be grateful for it.

    I hope the BoT doesn’t back down. They’ve already said enough shit to justify them all being fired. Salaita’s going to sue. He’s going to sue hard. And he will win. And UIUC is going down because of their ridiculously out-of-teach leadership. Ya think the 7th circuit will take kindly to a defacto litmus test on Israel for faculty appointments at public universities? I don’t think so.

  4. Freddie is correct that calls for civility can be a way of illegitimately constraining discourse. But they are not necessarily so. When the author of this blog writes phrases like “professional neckbeard Dan Foster also weighed in,” (here: http://lhote.blogspot.com/2012/06/so-fucking-free.html) he is engaging in needless incivility that is totally lacking in substance. The great thing about this blog is that it’s unafraid to offer substance that others shy away from because it’s been stigmatized as uncivil… but there are numerous examples of failing to distinguish and refrain from valueless incivility.

    1. That’s Dan Foster, the guy who regularly makes fun of people based on his perception of their masculinity on Twitter, right?

  5. So my summary is:

    1) Freddie makes the completely valid point that civility is a constraining and censoring standard in certain situations. I think almost everyone would agree that civility is not right for every situation.

    2) A note about an academic hiring decision to a Trustee – one who doesn’t seem to have played a direct role in the decision – is not one of those situations where civility should be dispensed with.

    A sound general principle is misapplied here.

    1. re: 2 — Could you clarify? The Trustee’s are the ones who are killing it. In the Chancellor’s latest walk back, in which, she said, she was conveying the sentiments of the BoT (of which, JFK’s nephew, is the chair and appointed by the Governor).

      Furthermore, JFK’s nephew is on the record as saying, “we don’t want to hurt him, we just don’t him here,” in a Chicago Tribune article noting that the BoT is open to a settlement (see, they don’t want to hurt him, how civil, oh, by the way, you’re supposed to start in a week and we’re kicking you to the curb without health insurance).

      I responded to you in good faith, so please don’t be one of those people who are like, “well, you shouldn’t quit your job until you’re confirmed,” and thus indicate to me I just wasted the last 120 seconds of my life responding to you.

  6. When people call respectful requests like O’Brien’s “abusive” — and I see nothing but respect for the office of trustee and the institution that he serves, coupled with a passionate point of view on the issue at hand — I just want to throw Orwell’s Politics and The English Language at them.

  7. “Deference to the powerful and contempt for the powerless” is a terrible definition of civility. Why cede this, instead of calling it out for the perversion it is? I’m sure you encourage some sort of standard of mutual respect in, for example, your classroom. What do you call it, if not civility?

      1. Ok, works for me. Just watch out that the notion of “kindness” doesn’t get opportunistically perverted, leading some future Freddie to write that “kindness is the discourse of power.”

  8. “refusal by the American press to judge that killing with the sort of moral clarity that we would normally associate with the killing of hundreds of children.”

    This just seems factually off. The American press hardly even bothers covering the deaths of thousands of muslim children that America killed in Iraq, afgan, Pakistan, Libya, etc. The civilian death toll in gaza has been reported literally hundreds of times by every single major news publication around the world. Try to find anything comparable related to the civilian death toll in Libya or afghan as the result of u.s. attacks.

    So even if its accurate to say that the press isn’t treating gaza deaths with the proper moral clarity, its simply inaccurate to say that the press treats Palestinian civilian deaths as less problematic, or less immoral. At least they cover it and acknowledge that civilians are dying. That’s more than you can say about civilian deaths caused by us or nato.

    In fact, to the u.s. press, muslim causalities don’t matter unless its at the hand of Israel.

  9. Prime Minister Netanyahu wears “a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children.”

    Hey everybody, that’s just Salaita expressing emotion — nothing to see here — sign another petition for free speech and write another letter to the U of I Board of Trustees. Salaita is of obvious, sterling character.

      1. Well, how we express our feelings says something about the state of our soul…or so I would argue. Making hyperbolic statements about Netanyahu’s jewelry does nothing to further discourse about the plight of Palestinian children. Here is a different tweet Professor Salaita could have sent that would have expressed similar concern over the deaths of Palestinian children but helped improve everyone’s understanding:

        “Hamas fired more rockets today near Palestinian children. They are putting those kids at risk. Many will probably die — I hate Hamas.”

        Angry, effective, and places the blame where it belongs. For further information, you and your readers are suggested to check this blog out daily: http://elderofziyon.blogspot.com/

        1. The notion that Hamas bears more responsibility for the IDF’s campaign against Palestinian civilians than the IDF does is ludicrous.

          1. Freddie,

            I haven’t been following the news, I guess, as closely as you have. I’m familiar with the IDF campaign against Hamas, triggered by the kidnapping and murder of Israelis along with rocket fire on Israeli towns.

            But I haven’t read anything about this “campaign against civilians”. Do tell.

  10. There are two ways to take this, though.

    Granted, Freddie’s right… civility can be used as a means of restricting a debate to keep out normative judgements that might be an important part of the debate.

    That doesn’t make civility *always* bad any more than any other tool is bad because it can be used for a bad purpose.

    Civility can also be used constructively as a means of restricting a debate. It’s very easy to read your interlocutor uncharitably and turn what could be a productive conversation into a screaming match. Maintaining a degree of civility can thus be productive.

    It’s not an either-or situation.

  11. ” Whatever else is true, this is true: Salaita was reacting to the killing of hundreds of children, and to a corresponding refusal by the American press to judge that killing with the sort of moral clarity that we would normally associate with the killing of hundreds of children. ”

    No, that’s actually not true at all (whatever else may be). Leaving aside your characterization of civilian deaths in war, the most offensive and hateful of Salaita’s tweets came in mid-June, weeks before Israel responded to rocket fire from Gaza, when – in the context of an Israeli search for three kidnapped (and, as it turns out, murdered) civilian teenagers – Salaita posted this gem:

    Steven Salaita @stevesalaita

    You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.

    That’s thousands of men, women, and children whose kidnap (and murder) Salaita was expressly supporting.

    Not oddly at all, none of Salaita’s defenders bother addressing that particular tweet – which a number of the Trustees cited as the primary reason for rejecting his hire – likely both because it is entirely indefensible and because it directly contradicts the neat framing (“He was just angrily responding to Israel attacking Gaza”) you would so much prefer.

    Again, so much else of your writing on this issue is wrong, for reasons that require thought and discussion. But “he was just responding to Gaza” isn’t one of them. That’s an outright lie, easily disproven by reference to the fact that the worst tweets came before the event they supposedly “responded” to.

    If Salaita invented a time machine, Freddie, that’s a decidedly odd use to put it to.

    1. The West Bank settlers are a pack of hideously racist, violent, anachronistic ethnonationalists, clinging to a fundamentally bigoted strain of the Jewish religion that has as its central precept the notion that non Jews are inherently deficient and rejected by God. I don’t advocate violence or condone advocacy for violence, but it’s not at all clear to me that this is what Salaita is doing in the tweet you quote.

      1. Freddie,

        First, whatever spin you want to put on the tweet (and we’ll get to that) the fact remains that it was well before Israel began Operation Protective Edge. So the framing (tweets in response to Israel’s actions in Gaza) remains false.

        Second, you clearly know absolutely nothing about what religious Jews believe; there is *no* strain of Judaism that believes “non Jews are inherently deficient and rejected by God.” I challenge you to find me a single quote from a single religious leader saying anything of the sort (not “random kook” but someone with any significant following – let’s make it easy and say even 100 people).

        Third, you say that you don’t condone violence or its advocacy, but if that’s true (and I’ll take you at your word), what in the world is the (false) generalization about West Bank settlers doing in your response? Even if all – including children – were the monsters you imagine (hint: they aren’t), it wouldn’t make Salaita’s tweet any better. Other than saying “well, the folks he was talking about are awful people, so it’s ok,” what’s your point? (And we can leave the problems with the generalization itself aside for now).

        Fourth, and most fundamentally, I await with bated breath your elucidation of what else Salaita could possibly have meant when, in that context and prefaced with the acknowledgement that he was being “unrefined”, he wished that those thousands of civilians would “go missing.” Though Salaita’s defenders keep telling me “that’s not how I read that tweet” or “there are other ways to read that tweet”, oddly enough none have managed to actually articulate any other reading.

        So please, go ahead, because I’m curious. But in the interests of intellectual honesty, please ask yourself if you would find the alternative reading you plan to suggest persuasive if, say, it came from the mouth of an Israeli politician explaining a tweet wishing (in an unrefined way), that “all of the fucking Palestinians would go missing.”

        Thanks in advance for what I am certain will be a cogent alternative reading.

        1. The beliefs of West Bank settlers are fundamentally expansionist, generally inspired by religion, and inherently ethno-nationalist. Their views are incompatible with modernity and with the basic moral and political ideals of equality and social justice. What’s more, by definition they are engaged in an illegal and immoral occupation that is justified in their minds by religious claims to being part of a chosen people. I believe that such claims are illiberal and contrary to belief in human social equality. I further believe in the Palestinian people’s right to their historical homes and to basic human rights, and I believe that the settlers are guilty of crimes against human rights.

          Second, you can call my framing false if you would like, but no one but yourself seems to think that this particular tweet is the individual cause of this firing. Rather, what’s been quoted constantly is a series of tweets, most of which were written while their author was watching the systematic destruction of Gaza and the entirely avoidable deaths of thousands. But suppose the tweet you’ve quoted was what cause the firing: am I supposed to believe that the nearly 50 years of occupation is not itself a meaningful provocation for passionate speech in a casual forum? That all of the many thousands of Palestinian civilians killed by the IDF in the past don’t amount to an emotional provocation? That the Nakba doesn’t?

          Third, precisely what is at issue is whether it is fair and appropriate to judge an academic’s political beliefs– protected for generations by the principles of intellectual freedom– in a non-academic forum where people speak extemporaneously.

          When people are passionate and speaking without filters, they often engage in hyperbole and exaggeration for effect. Salaita wants the settlements to stop their expansion. That is sensible: the world’s legal and political bodies are nearly unanimous in their beliefs that the settlers are breaking international law. The settlers are criminals. There crimes should stop. Unlike “Jew” or “Palestinian,” “settler” describes a behavior, not an identity, and that behavior is one that Salaita thinks should stop. Yes, he spoke intemperately, which as you know he admitted later. But that’s what occupation does to a people.

          “an Israeli politician explaining a tweet wishing (in an unrefined way), that “all of the fucking Palestinians would go missing.””

          Calls for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Palestine by Israeli politicians being far from unheard of, I don’t need to imagine any such thing. The difference is that they have the actual intent to go about doing it, Israel has the means to accomplish it, and there are those in Israel’s government who would like nothing more than to get started. Which again has always been my point: when we debate Israel and Palestine, we debate conditions that are entirely imaginary for Israelis but entirely real for Palestinians. Even if I believed that Steven Salaita actually advocated violence against settlers, it would be immaterial: no such violence will come from his advocacy. Meanwhile, violence against Palestinians by Israel’s government and military is a day-to-day reality.

  12. One last comment. While you say:

    The West Bank settlers are a pack of hideously racist, violent, anachronistic ethnonationalists, clinging to a fundamentally bigoted strain of the Jewish religion

    Here’s what Peace Now (not exactly pro-settler) has to say about West Bank religious demographics:

    Does this mean that most settlers are religious-nationalists?
    No. According to polling data, just over half of Israeli settlers identify them selves as religious – a result which is intuitively logical, given that most of the largest settlements are the “bedroom” communities like Ma’ale Adumim, Ariel, and Givat Ze’ev – non-ideological communities with non-religious atmospheres, to which Israelis from across the religious and political spectrum are attracted for quality-of-life reasons.


    In other words, even if every single one of the West Bank settlers who were religious subscribed to the supposed (but non-existant) religious ideology you identified as the defining characteristic of all West Bank settlers, you would still be wrong, since roughly 50% of that population isn’t religious at all. And if you knew anything about religious Jews (as the old joke goes, where there are 2 religious Jews, there are 3 shuls), you would know that the notion that all the religious West Bank settlers shared a particular ideology (let alone the one you are claiming) is laughable. In fact, just that one Peace Now link above touches on some of the distinctions among the religious ideologies of “ultra-orthodox” and “religious nationalist” settlers in West Bank communities.

    Yes, some West Bank settlers are truly awful people (the price taggers, particularly those featured in the recent Vice segment, are stomach turning and the very definition of a chilul haShem). But generalizing from there to all Israelis living in the West Bank makes as much sense as judging all Palestinians by their suicide bombers and Hamas supporters. If you (rightfully) wouldn’t stand for that from a pro-Israel gentleman like myself, why indulge in it as part of your own rhetoric?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *