Civility for Whom?

With academic freedom and free speech under attack, we should see calls for civility for what they are: attempts to silence the messenger, write Johnny E. Williams and David G. Embrick.

November 16, 2018
 
 

Faculty members are increasingly being disciplined under the guise of violating civility for publicly engaging systemic oppression. Accusations of incivility are levied against faculty by politicians and university administrators whose primary task it is to protect the matrices of systemic domination (white racism, heteropatriarchy and capitalism).

In an opinion essay published in The New York Times, Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history at New York University, contends that academe’s obsession with civility is misguided, as this obsession waters down or erases the importance of incivility in creating social change. Much like the term “diversity,” the language of civility is invoked to short-circuit the legitimate questions that faculty members raise about the complicity of universities and politicians in creating immiseration for everyday people.

Such chastisements are usually directed at professors interrogating oppression in a manner displeasing to college and university administrations. They are labeled as uncivil and lacking proper decorum. That is, the “tone” or “manner” of their language is cast as “not reflecting the values articulated by the institution.”

University presidents or chancellors accuse these faculty members of violating some unwritten code of “civility,” hence in need of disciplining. Yet this action constitutes a violation and assault upon professors’ academic freedom and our right to freedom of speech.

This obsession with a civility that upholds white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist power was on display when the chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Jeffrey Vitter, released a statement condemning a tweet made by sociology professor James M. Thomas. Thomas was responding to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who tweeted that people should not yell at senators, shout at people in restaurants or “rage about past votes.” Thomas maintained he did not think many people were mad “about past votes.” Writing in a senator’s voice, he tweeted, “Yes, I plan to take away your healthcare, but that’s no reason to interrupt me while I eat my meal at this restaurant you probably can’t afford …” In a subsequent tweet, Thomas wrote, “Don’t just interrupt a senator’s meal, y’all. Put your whole damn fingers in their salads.”

The latter tweet was too much for the University of Mississippi’s genteel etiquette, so Vitter penned this problematic response: the faculty member’s post “did not reflect the values articulated by the university, such as respect for the dignity of each individual and civility and fairness.” Vitter continued, “While I passionately support free speech, I condemn statements that encourage acts of aggression.”

Clearly, Vitter’s idea of what constitutes “uncivil” behavior and “aggression” is, among others things, myopic and troubling. Challenging senators’ decisions that adversely affect the lives of everyday people is not “uncivil” or “aggression.” It is democracy in action. Vitter’s employed the terms “civility” and “aggression” to subvert Thomas’s legitimate call to pressure senators to create a more humane and ethical country. Vitter’s “civility’ is not about enforcing a universal moral code but rather about controlling dissenting voices that value human life over wealth extraction. Though Vitter’s response to Thomas’s tweets was extremely disconcerting, many people criticized it for not going far enough. They desired concrete disciplinary action strong enough to make professors think long and hard about publicly challenging oppressors and their systems of oppression.

When people who imagine themselves to be powerful feel the status quo is threatened by the “incivility” -- which is not violence -- of the supposedly powerless, they deploy the discourse of “civility” to control and redirect the narrative and actions of their victims. Those calling for civility invert reality and portray themselves as innocent victims of people reacting to their treachery. The notion of “civility” is fundamentally about power: who has the power to demean others, engage in or call for violence toward others, and provoke hatred toward others -- and who is often silenced.

Vitter’s response to Thomas’s tweet, and similar statements by Mississippi’s governor, Phil Bryant, and State Senator Chris McDaniel, are laughable, if not outrageous. Evoking the term “civility” is a deflection tactic deployed to pressure professors -- particularly those who are members of oppressed groups -- into having calm discussions with people who have breached the bounds of civility by trying to control dissent and challenges to the status quo. Being civil then is a polite-sounding call to fall back in line with the normalized immiseration induced by the wealthy few.

That ensures that professors self-censor or moderate their speech, teaching and writing about unequal power in the United States. Allowing university leaders and others to define the terms of what constitutes civility ignores their hypocrisy. They can engage in hate discourse and even promote epistemic violence by reframing their position as “being honest,” while stymieing any and all contestation of their position as hysterical, violent or uncivil. This is why professors should not play the civility game.

At a time when academic freedom and freedom of speech are under constant attack, we should all be weary and concerned about so-called calls for civility and recognize them for what they are: attempts to silence the messenger. As Frederick Douglass once remarked, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”

Bio

Johnny E. Williams is a professor of sociology at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. His most recent book is Decoding Racial Ideology in Genomics (Lexington Books, 2016). David G. Embrick is an associate professor with joint positions in the Africana Studies Institute and the department of sociology at the University of Connecticut. He is the past president of the Association for Humanist Sociology, past president of the Southwestern Sociological Association, and founding co-editor of the journal Sociology of Race and Ethnicity.

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