The past 18 months have been marked by profound changes in the sociopolitical landscape. Within a context of increasingly visible white supremacism, nationalism, heterosexism and transmisogyny, campuses have become contested ground. These dynamics are a continuation of patterns in U.S. politics and society, but following the 2016 election, the visibility of these oppressive ideas and movements has increased. Alongside that increase is a renewed contestation of the contours of “free speech” on campuses. So-called free speech organizations have pushed for an unlimited, absolutist definition of what kinds of speech should be permitted on campuses and in classrooms, with free speech claims and lawsuits leading to events like the white nationalist rallies that have taken place on campuses around the country, including my university’s campus last fall.
Recently, discussions surrounding free speech have shifted to include civility. That is, while campus speech should (according to the current rhetoric) be in no case limited for far-right extremists calling for the elimination of some human rights and in some cases even advocating for genocide, marginalized faculty should be "civil" and "sensitive" in their speech.
The irony of this double standard surrounding civility is obvious in national discourse. Take the news about a Virginia restaurant politely asking a presidential staff member to leave. The owner’s decision was met with absolute condemnation from Republicans and Democrats alike, including in floor speeches in Congress calling for civility. The reaction from right-wing activists was swift and aggressive, too. People protested outside the restaurant holding signs mocking LGBTQ individuals, saying, “Let God Burn Them.” The restaurant was vandalized, and the owner received death threats. Those actions did not result in a widespread outcry, nor did they lead to congressional floor speeches calling for civility.
While that story captured national headlines, a similar dynamic plays out on college campuses on a daily basis. Free speech for some, civility for others. In classes that deal with issues of privilege and oppression, some students expect to be free to express their objectively incorrect and harmful views (free speech), while those targeted by that expression are expected to listen calmly and politely (civility).
For instance, recently in one of my quantitative research methods courses, a straight white cisgender man expressed his view that the reason for racial disparities in schooling was due to the “genetic inferiority” of people of color rather than systemic oppression. He fully expected me and the students (of whom about half were students of color) to engage in a “civil” discussion of that idea. In other words, the expectation was to engage in objectively abhorrent speech and be met with an even-keeled and pleasant dialogue. As a white cisgender man, perhaps especially one who teaches quantitative methods, this kind of abhorrent speech was a deviation from the norm for me, though it is too often the baseline for scholars of color.
At the root of this dynamic is the expectation that campuses, and professors, put oppressive, incorrect and dehumanizing views on an even ground with all other perspectives. This logic expects members of marginalized groups to debate their very humanity. As a queer faculty member, it means I am expected to engage in a discussion about the validity of my identity: whether it is real, whether it might be symptomatic of demonic possession or perhaps a mental illness. Students and faculty of color, similarly, are expected to debate the reality of their experiences and their right to equitable systems. The situation is created by a very particular definition of free speech, but is exacerbated by the expectation of civility.
The added layer of civility creates an imbalanced power dynamic. It says that one should be free to question my human dignity and civil rights (and that doing so from a privileged social position is acceptable, even normal, within hegemonic power relations), but that my response must be muted, calm and unemotional. That, of course, means that I am not being afforded the same free speech rights, as mine are constrained by expectations of civility and sensitivity. At the campus level, it means that while a speaker in the campus’s largest auditorium calls for genocide, those protesting should remain calm and orderly. In the classroom, it means that vehement attacks on one’s humanity should be met with detached and unemotional debate. Free speech for white, straight, cisgender men (and women, sometimes) and their attempts to reify their place in the stratified social hierarchy, and civility for those who oppose such ideas and practices.
Because of the ways in which “civility” is defined within systems of whiteness and cisheterosexism, claims of incivility are weaponized against marginalized groups to vilify their attempts to claim full human dignity and full equity. Caught up in this, too, are notions of “sensitivity,” which play to the emotionality of people whose privileged social positions are pointed out. The emotional reaction of those in privileged groups to pointing out their privileged status (and thus, the fact that some of their gains are due to unearned societal advantages) are often tools to shut down critical education. These emotional reactions are well documented in the literature, including work on the emotionality of whiteness and white fragility, and privileged group members clearly expect that those emotional reactions should end any conversations that so much as mention race, sexuality or gender.
These reactions cannot drive our educational praxis, though. Critical educators can create clear lines while also promoting open discussions in class. At a time when people of color, queer people, immigrants, low-income families and others are under redoubled attacks at all levels, both in the legal and personal arenas, we should not allow our classes to become platforms for the voices that seek to dehumanize, demonize and oppress. We cannot let our campuses be stages to debate the reality of queer identities, the worthiness of people of color, the humanity of immigrant communities or the fundamental human worth of any group.
It is not uncivil or insensitive to tell a person who argues inherent inferiority for people of color that he is wrong, all evidence contradicts his claim and it is not a perspective my course will engage. Moreover, the question itself was uncivil and insensitive -- though hegemonic white supremacist heteropatriarchy often serves to present such claims as benign or reasonable. In reclaiming sensitivity, my move to immediately counter the expression of that (uncivil and inhumane) viewpoint was sensitive to the real harm such views do to students of color in my class, and in fact was a call for that student to act in a more civilized manner. Similarly, when faculty and staff question the legitimacy and allowability of my queer identity, my move (often perceived as incivility) to immediately stop that line of questioning and inform the person that my identity and humanity are not for them to debate is an act of sensitivity for myself and queer colleagues and a call for civility toward us.
The dominant discourses at this moment suggest that white, straight, cisgender voices are free to speak, and the voices of marginalized people should be constrained by civility and sensitivity. We should reject this discourse. While kindness and open dialogue are values we can all seek to embody, that does not require unemotional and detached theoretical debate about the identity, humanity, value or dignity of our human family.