In his "Civility Manifesto" published here last week Cary Nelson cites my blog post, "Is Incivility the New Communism?," as "particularly hyperbolic" in its critique of efforts by some university administrators to demand that free speech be limited to expression they deem "civil." In his own expression Nelson himself has been known to employ hyperbole -- as well as sarcasm -- even to the point that some might call uncivil, so it's surprising he does not recognize that my exaggeration was intentional. Of course, we are not living through a new Red Scare on campus. But the point is that we could be if the incivility monitors have their way.
Nelson asks, "does unrestrained antagonism make for the best learning environment?" It surely does not. But that isn't the issue. No reasonable person welcomes hatred, harassment, or violence. According to Nelson, "Eloquence in the service of conviction does not require abusive rhetoric or personal accusation." But, like it or not, free speech does not require eloquence. It's one thing to encourage civil conduct and reasoned discourse, quite another to regulate expression in the name of such encouragement. But that is precisely what too many college and university administrators and trustees are threatening to do. The threat to free speech rights is real.
But we needn't go further than Nelson's own campus for the most chilling example of an effort to invoke civility as a criterion of free expression. According to University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise, “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.” This extraordinary dictate goes well beyond encouraging civil communication. Under Wise's disturbing standard a biologist who "demeans" creationism could be out of a job; indeed, the evolutionary viewpoint itself, which creationists claim demeans humanity, could be banned.
While Dirks later clarified his ill-considered statement, Wise has not. Indeed, the Illinois Board of Trustees quickly declared its "collective and unwavering support of Chancellor Wise and her philosophy of academic freedom and free speech tempered in respect for human rights.” According to the board, UI must be a “university community that values civility as much as scholarship.” We know who should assess scholarship: the scholars. But who will judge what is civil? That is precisely the issue.
Nelson is correct that much of the uproar over civility stems from the Palestinian/Israeli dispute and I share his concern about the corrosive effect of that seemingly intractable conflict on both the campus climate and academic freedom. We differ sharply, however, about who is responsible. According to Nelson, only one side is to blame: "verbal excess, aggression, and ad hominem attacks are part of the standard repertoire of the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement. That typically stimulates raised tempers and sometimes similar behavior on the pro-Israeli side."
But the situation is more complicated. Elements on both sides invoke the protections of academic freedom and the First Amendment when it benefits them and violate these when it doesn't. What about efforts by some supporters of Israel to effectively blacklist faculty members whose views on Middle East studies do not comport with theirs? This move is truly evocative of the Red Scare and more threatening to academic freedom and the independence of the universities than a few "uncivil" words from pro-Palestinian students.
More important, the two sides are not in equivalent positions. Although support for the Palestinian cause is greater on American campuses than in society in general, those who control the universities -- administrators and trustees as well as powerful donors -- are most likely to support the Israeli cause. The expressive weapons of those in power and those without power almost always differ. It is usually the powerless whose voices must be shrill, who may break rules to be heard, who, in short, may be uncivil. Civility, however, can be a privilege of the powerful, whose control over institutions often leads them to silence opponents instead of engaging them. As Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education noted, in his experience "campus administrators are most likely to deem as 'uncivil' speech that criticizes them or the university’s sacred cows."
This imbalance is illustrated by events at Ohio University, which Nelson cites as an example of "uncivil" expression escalating to arrests. Nelson ignores, however, what preceded these arrests. A student government leader filmed a video in which she poured fake blood over herself to protest Israeli actions in Gaza. The video was bold and even graphic, but under the law it is protected speech and as a video abused or threatened no one. The student, however, received numerous death threats. How did the university president respond? In a mealy-mouthed statement he disassociated the university from the video and called vaguely for civility, but remained silent about the death threats, effectively coming down on one side of the controversy. Only later were four pro-Israeli students arrested for disrupting a meeting, which suggests that lame public calls for civility are also largely ineffective.
"When administrators urge us to be models of civility they are doing exactly what their job requires," Nelson declares. I agree, but the danger to which I and so many others have been responding is that such urgings show undeniable and dangerous signs of becoming requirements. And such requirements may threaten academic freedom and free speech as much as any loyalty oath.
Henry Reichman is first vice-president of the American Association of University Professors and chair of AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. He teaches history at California State University at East Bay.
Printed posters carried aloft in a September demonstration at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign read “Civility = Silence. Silence = Death.” In a particularly hyperbolic move, Henry Reichman, chair of the American Association of University Professor’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, claimed that charges of incivility are being used to silence faculty members in the same way that accusations of communist sympathies were used to silence them during the McCarthy period of the 1950s. Historical comparisons should be carefully justified. This equation is at best frivolous; at worst it risks fomenting unwarranted feelings of victimhood.
Faculty members and students share with all Americans the right to indulge in uninformed and intemperate speech. Social media provide them with effective means for doing so. But does unrestrained antagonism make for the best learning environment? Does it advance knowledge in the way higher education is pledged to do? Does it train students to evaluate evidence dispassionately? Does it prepare students to participate productively in public life? Does it help students learn that it is possible, indeed preferable, to be zealous in advocating a point of view without vilifying or trying to silence those who differ?
These effects include long-term consequences. The immediate effects of uncontrolled campus hostility can be more dramatic. We have already seen intemperate campus speech escalate toward violence. That happens most often with debates over Israel. Indeed verbal excess, aggression, and ad hominem attacks are part of the standard repertoire of the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement. That typically stimulates raised tempers and sometimes similar behavior on the pro-Israeli side. Nothing good comes of these confrontations.
We have recently seen campus passions cross the line into a moment of physical violence at Temple University. We saw extreme speech and symbolic action degenerate into threats, accusations, and even arrests at Ohio University. If we add to the list instances when campus groups sought to undermine academic freedom by denying invited speakers the right to speak the list of examples would grow. A silent protest at a lecture is a dignified act of moral and political witness. A brief noisy demonstration that ends after a minute registers passionate discontent but preserves academic freedom. Both of course require group discipline. A vocal demonstration that blocks a lecture abandons civility and undermines the purpose of higher education.
A certain portion of the American left now regards civility as a bland form of corporate speak. Or, worse still, as an Orwellian effort to stifle academic freedom. And the far right thrives on hostility and ad hominem attack. Our divided national political culture can hardly be said to encourage anything different. But should a campus try hard to emulate Washington?
Academic freedom does indeed protect both current faculty members and students from institutional reprisals for deplorable speech. But it was never intended to protect people from criticism for what they write and say. Uncivil students and faculty at a university should not be punished. University presidents who urge civility are not trying to stifle dissent or suppress speech. They are trying to make the campus an oasis of sanity. They are trying to urge faculty and students to showcase productive dialogue. That is part of what higher education owes the country. That is part of the cultural and political difference higher education can make.
Civility does not preclude passionate advocacy. It doesn’t preclude devices like irony and humor. Nor does it mean ideas and arguments cannot be strongly expressed and severely criticized. Civil discourse need not be bland. Civility should lead us to treat people with respect, but it doesn’t mean that all arguments or ideas merit respect. Eloquence in the service of conviction does not require abusive rhetoric or personal accusation. It does not require us to claim we know what is in one another’s hearts and to indict people on that basis. It does not require us to demonize our opponents unless we believe they are beyond hope and fundamentally corrupt or evil, a perspective not likely to apply to campus colleagues. Campus speech that harasses, bullies, or intimidates cheapens our communities and diminishes their value.
When administrators urge us to be models of civility they are doing exactly what their job requires. Civility does not mark the boundaries of free speech protection. But it helps describe how we can most often relate to one another productively. Voluntary civility is the best way to conduct difficult debates, but it is not a limit on permissible speech. Faculty members need to teach by example. They need to take the lead in demonstrating what good citizenship entails. Unfortunately, far too many faculty members are doing precisely the opposite.
The Arab/Israeli conflict gives continuing evidence of how inflammatory rhetoric in the Middle East can lead to actual violence. It is thus both sad and ironic to see our campuses conduct debate on the subject as if campus debate amounted to war by other means.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.