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.