Is "Incivility" the New Communism?

During the great red scare of the late 1940s and 1950s, many otherwise “liberal” politicians and, sadly, more than a few academics argued that faculty members who were Communists (actually in practice those who declined to publicly state they were not Communists or even those who refused to denounce others) forfeited the right to academic freedom because allegedly they were not independent thinkers but subservient to a foreign power.  (A similar argument had once been made against Catholics, with Rome standing in for Moscow.)  Moreover, it was often claimed, Communists were out to destroy the very academic freedom from which they sought (cynically, of course!) to benefit.  Hence, they must be denied its protections.  (The AAUP’s behavior at the time was at best spotty; for the background see the fine books by AAUP activists Ellen Schrecker and Marjorie Heins.)

Today it seems a similar argument is directed against those on campus said to “lack civility” in political expression.  The case of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois is the most obvious example, but that case has been discussed so thoroughly on this blog and elsewhere that there seems little at the moment to add.  However, the Salaita case may be the tip of a much larger iceberg.  To wit:

Last week Ohio University President Roderick J. McDavis challenged the newly elected student senate president Megan Marzec to take the “ice bucket challenge,” a popular stunt where people pour buckets of ice water over their heads on video to raise awareness of the disease ALS.  But Marzec instead made a video in which she poured a bucket of fake blood over her head to protest Israel’s abuse of Palestinians.  Now whatever one may think of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there can be little doubt that Marzec was well within both her First Amendment rights and her rights as a student.  So too were those in student government who sought to disassociate themselves from her action.  In short, in a clever and even courageous manner, reminiscent of what my generation once called “guerrilla theater,” Marzec initiated a potentially important and enlightening campus political debate on a burning and controversial international conflict.

But that’s not how President McDavis saw it.  In a statement, the university declared:  “We recognize the rights of individual students to speak out on matters of public concern and we will continue to do so, but want to be clear that the message shared today by her is not an institutional position or a belief held by President McDavis.”  That’s fine; neither the university nor its President was obligated to support Marzec’s viewpoint. But they should also have disassociated themselves from (and denounced!) those who reportedly responded to her with numerous death threats.  (For instance, Marzec reported one such message:  “”I hope ISIS cuts your f***in’ head off, you f***in despicable c***.)  Instead, the statement declared:

In a university community of our size, there are many issues that merit our attention and dialogue. As stewards of the public trust, we have a responsibility to encourage the free exchange of ideas. For it is through dialogue on conflicting views that we will move toward mutual understanding.

I take great pride in the fact that Ohio University is a community that tackles hard issues head-on. The conflict in Israel and Gaza is no exception. But the manner in which we conduct ourselves as we exercise our right to free speech is of utmost importance.

In my First Year Student Convocation address, I emphasized the idea that we are a University family. As members of a University family, we will not always agree, but we should respect one another. And when we engage in difficult dialogue on issues such as this, we must do so with civility and a deep appreciation for the diverse and resilient international community in which we live.

What a remarkable example of mealy-mouthed rhetoric!  Here we have a student who makes a public statement in a theatrical and powerful manner on an emotionally charged by critically important international issue.  She does not insult, much less threaten, any member of the university community (although even if she did, wouldn’t that be her right?)  In response she receives obscene insults and death threats.  Yet, apparently, according to McDavis, it is she who lacks civility!

The Israeli-Palestinian dispute has prompted and will continue to prompt strong emotions on all sides.  I have previously bemoaned (for instance in this article) the tendency of some on each side of this dispute to appeal to academic freedom when it favors them and to violate it when it does not.  But such violations fail entirely to justify efforts to silence opposing views or to demand that they conform to somebody else’s standard of “civil” expression.

And now, directly on the heels of both the Salaita and Ohio controversies, come more general articulations of the emerging “civility” doctrine from two prominent university presidents at opposite sides of the country.  On Friday, Pennsylvania State University President Eric Barron issued a statement that read in part:

Debate and disagreement are critical constructs in the role of universities in testing ideas and promoting progress on complex issues.  But, the leaders of your University at every level, from the administration, faculty, staff and students, are unanimous in deploring the erosion of civility associated with our discourse.  Reasonable people disagree, but we can disagree without sacrificing respect.  The First Amendment guarantees our right to speak as we wish, but we are stronger if we can argue and debate without degrading others.

Today, civility is an issue that arises in many areas of campus debate.  Some may argue that the lack of civility is a national issue, promoted by a growing community involved in posting anonymous comments on blogs or by acrimonious national politics.  We cannot afford to follow their lead, not if we are to serve our students as role models, not if we expect to continue to attract the outstanding volunteers who serve our University in so many ways, and not if we wish to have Penn Staters take our University to new levels of excellence.

It is not clear what prompted this statement — and there is no direct mention of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute — but the implications for academic freedom are surely troubling.  Who defines “civility?”  What constitutes uncivil expression?  Surely we can all agree that direct threats of personal violence aimed at specific individuals raise the most serious concerns, but is all heated language, are all powerful metaphors, is all emotion to be shunned?

And then we have a letter sent to the campus community, also on Friday, by University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, which actually invokes the pending fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement to conclude that “we can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility. Simply put, courteousness and respect in words and deeds are basic preconditions to any meaningful exchange of ideas. In this sense, free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society.”

According to Dirks,

For free speech to have meaning it must not just be tolerated, it must also be heard, listened to, engaged and debated.  Yet this is easier said than done, for the boundaries between protected and unprotected speech, between free speech and political advocacy, between the campus and the classroom, between debate and demagoguery, between freedom and responsibility, have never been fully settled.  As a consequence, when issues are inherently divisive, controversial and capable of arousing strong feelings, the commitment to free speech and expression can lead to division and divisiveness that undermine a community’s foundation. This fall, like every fall, there will be no shortage of issues to animate and engage us all. Our capacity to maintain that delicate balance between communal interests and free expression, between openness of thought and the requirements and disciplines of academic knowledge, will be tested anew.

Dirks’s statement has already prompted a series of critical responses, among which I heartily recommend the posting by UCLA Professor Michael Meranze at the “Remaking the University” blog.   He puts the issue well, I think:

The demand for civility effectively outlaws a range of intellectual, literary, and political forms: satire is not civil, caricature is not civil, hyperbole and aesthetic mockery are not civil nor is polemic. Ultimately the call for civility is a demand that you not express anger; and if it was enforced it would suggest that there is nothing to be angry about in the world.  The call for civility in discourse confuses the enforcement of administrative time, place, and manner restrictions with the genuine need to defend people from personal threat.  The result is that the administrative desire trumps all else.

Greg Lukianoff of FIRE also expressed skepticism in an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal :

Mr. Dirks may have thought his call for civility would be uncontroversial, but even this seemingly benign message should not be greeted uncritically. As John Stuart Mill noted in “On Liberty” in 1859, calls for civility are often a tool to enforce conformity. A fierce and angry defense of the values of the dominant class might be hailed as righteous rage, but even a milder, dissenting opinion is easily labeled uncivil.

In my 13 years defending student and faculty speech, I have learned that campus administrators are most likely to deem as “uncivil” speech that criticizes them or the university’s sacred cows. Meanwhile, students who agree with the administration are likely to be complimented for speaking truth to power.

Some other reactions to Dirks’s message may be found here and here.

A pattern seems to be emerging, and it is not a salutary one.  Just as in the 1950s being labeled a Communist could supposedly justify violations of both academic freedom and the First Amendment, so too today it appears that there are some — and, alas, these include far too many prominent academic “leaders” — who would have us deny these same freedoms to those they label as violators of “civility.”  This is no less dangerous than the justifications of the anti-Communists.  When does a debate lose civility?  Just which expressions will be permissible?

There is so much more to be said about this issue, but for now let me simply conclude — to take the “Communism” parallel one step further — with a quote from Mao Zedong.  “A revolution,” Mao famously wrote, “is not a dinner party.”  Neither, I will add, is a university.


14 thoughts on “Is "Incivility" the New Communism?

  1. Hank, I was with you until you started quoting Chairman Mao and sounding like a commie.

    How about this quote from Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University: “Candor, far from being the enemy of civility, is one of its preconditions.”

    Also, here’s one from Matthew Dowd, George W. Bush’s pollster and chief strategist for the 2004 presidential campaign: “There is a toxic nature to Washington that thrives on food fights and thrives on controversy and thrives on people not getting along.”

    I am assuming, then, that Dowd believes that the “swift-boating” of John Kerry did not add significantly to the toxicity of national politics, that it was not a violation of civility–and by that elastic standard, that almost nothing can be considered uncivil.

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  3. “Ultimately the call for civility is a demand that you not express anger; and if it was enforced it would suggest that there is nothing to be angry about in the world.”

    This is the civility argument in a nutshell. Expressing anger, even righteous anger about injustice, is identified as confrontation and a prelude to violence. The rhetoric about civility (or professionalism) is all about fear.

  4. fuck civility . when police are disarmed and caged for their crimes, when government no longer has the power to terrorize the people with impunity, then i’ll consider civility

    this occurred at oakland city council ::: while councilmembers considered authorizing more excuses to support police violence against people for protesting, they spent part of the meeting attempting to control what words we used to protest their plan … i let ’em know, in no uncertain terms, that me saying ‘fuck you’ or ‘fuck the fucking police’ is way more civil then them politely authorizing brutality against us

  5. There is a legitimate need to move beyond the pervasively toxic and adversarial nature of discourse these days. Is there another word instead of ‘civility’ that encapsulates the idea that real conversations that make progress on divisive issues are rooted in treating people with equality, inclusion, and respect?

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