Misunderstanding Civility and the Salaita Case

Philosophy professor Joseph Levine argues in a New York Times blog that Steven Salaita was justified in violating standards of civility in a particular tweet about anyone who supports Israel during the attacks on Gaza being “an awful human being.” Levine defends Salaita against the charge of incivility on the grounds that he believes Salaita’s views to be correct.

I think the key mistake Levine makes is assuming that there is some enforceable norm of civility that Salaita violated. In reality, the key standards in academia are whether one is making good arguments or bad ones, and whether one is violating the rights of others.

Since Salaita was not threatening anyone or calling for the censorship of views that he disliked, the issue of the rights of other people only comes up with regard to the classroom: that is, if Salaita had told his students, if you disagree with me, you’re a terrible human being, it would be disturbing because it would tend to silence those who might disagree with him. But Salaita never said that to his students, and the standards of good classroom teaching do not apply to every waking moment of a professor’s life (that is, a professor who yells at someone in traffic cannot be assumed to yell at students who express ideas he doesn’t like). And, of course, the standards of good classroom teaching are based on the evaluation of a professor’s complete teaching record, not one controversial comment.

Now, Levine has pointed out that Salaita may have made a bad argument in his tweet. But bad arguments are all around us, and are not grounds for dismissing faculty. Yes, if professors make bad arguments in all of their research and teaching, then they will not be hired. But if they make a bad argument about why Cubs fans are idiots on an online sports message board, that cannot be the basis of firing a professor. The bad arguments have to be in their academic work, and they must be evaluated in the totality of an academic evaluation.

Levine is particularly wrong when he cites “truth” as the basis for evaluating the civility of a claim. In other words, Levine says that if what Salaita says is true (or ought to be true), then it is acceptable to violate civility. Such a standard is no standard at all, since it depends upon whether one agrees with the speaker. By this approach, everyone who agrees with me is civil, and everyone who disagrees is uncivil, regardless of how they frame their arguments.

Levine’s argument for this claim is that everyone would agree that the 9-11 hijackers were awful human beings. Since everyone agrees with this, he says, it’s acceptable to violate the norms of civility.

Unintentionally, Levine is exposing the fundamental flaws of this conventional understanding of civility. Because the meaning of civility is based upon agreement with the speaker, it is ultimately worthless, and little more than an expression of public opinion. Civility thus become a form of majority opinion. One person’s civility is another’s incivility, and the norms of civility become synonymous with the norms of popular belief. This is what’s wrong with the conventional approach to civility. We need a more sound, precise definition of civility, one that does not depend upon agreement with the truth claims of the speaker.

When the University of Illinois Board of Trustees argued that they represent a “university community that values civility as much as scholarship,” I noted, “The Board of Trustees also reveals a deep misunderstanding of what ‘civility’ is. Civility means living in a civil society. Civility means engaging in social interactions without resorting to threats of violence or other kinds of retaliation. Civility does not mean politeness or niceness.”

The only issue of civility involved in the Salaita case is this: in a civil society, we do not seek to punish, threaten, or harm those we disagree with. The civil response is to argue with them. So, the only act of incivility in the Salaita case was the firing of Salaita for expressing ideas that those in power at the University of Illinois did not like.

That’s the only enforceable definition of civility, the only one compatible with a free society, that I can imagine. Of course, everyone is perfectly free to argue that Salaita (or anyone else) is rude in their arguments, or makes poor arguments. But civility, if it is to be a justification for punishing people, must take the form that I suggest. Otherwise, it will be dependent on whether or not you agree with the speaker.

13 thoughts on “Misunderstanding Civility and the Salaita Case

    • If that commonsense definition of civility is going to prevail, then there has to be an absolute ban in academia on evaluating and punishing people based on civility, since courtesy is not an academic criterion. I’d prefer to see an older definition of civility, meaning living in a civil society, not politeness, since it is clearly relevant to restrict threats, violence, and repression in academia, and it seems appropriate to call this “civility.”

      • I’m also not persuaded that this entire “civility” meme isn’t a distraction from the real reasons for not hiring Salaita. Civility was invented in a timely way to provide cover for some “uncivil,” if not rude and bullying behavior, going on behind the scenes. We have seen this so many times when it comes to the issue of Israel, and even inside the AAUP, that it’s just another effort to “move the goalposts,” whe we’re actually talking about Israel. “Civility” is a vehicle for similar shenanigans as have gone in the past, where someone wants to exercise managerial control over how academics talk about Israel. Typically, that control offers a pretense of objectivity, fairness, etc but is not.

        For example, the AAUP had to insert itself into a British argument about BDS, but it never, as far as I know, made a statement in support of academic freedom for Palestinians-students, professors, administrators, staff, etc.

        This mirrors the US government’s pretense of “honest broker,” when that simply isn’t the case.

  1. I am not so sure I would include “punish” as a mark of incivility toward those with whom we may not agree. I would like to punish George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, George Tenet, Judge Jay Bybee and numerous others who supported, authorised and engaged in acts of torture.

    • It’s not incivility to urge punishment of people who commit crimes. However, it clearly would be incivility for a college to punish someone for expressing agreement with Dick Cheney in support of torture.

  2. It seems to me that much of the dialogue surrounding this Salaita incident is predicated on a false premise. And that premise is that Salaita was a hired faculty member of the University of Illinois and was therefore entitled to all the protections that academic freedom allows.

    Indeed, much of the discussion on this and other blogs refer to Salaita’s “firing.” A fairer characterization of this matter, in my opinion, would be that Salaita simply was not hired.

    The offer of employment to Salaita – as delineated in the 10/3/13 letter from Brian H. Ross – is a conditional offer. It is not an absolute offer. It expressly requires the approval of the Board of Trustees (BoT). Until such approval by the BoT is granted, there is no employment contract. It matters little that Salaita accepted the conditional offer on 10/9/13. Salaita is not now nor has he ever been an employee of the University.

    There is nothing radical about conditional offers. Employers use them all the time as an added protection against hiring an undesirable employee in the event that negative information arises about a potential employee before the hiring contract is actually consummated.

    Now, it appears that many blog contributors have conflated two different standards. One standard is that of firing a university professor for expressing unpopular ideas. And the other standard is that of hiring someone who expresses unpopular ideas.

    The first standard, firing a university professor, does, of course, require adherence to all the academic freedoms that the bloggers have passionately defended. The second standard, hiring someone who expresses unpopular ideas requires no such adherence.

    The hiring officials at any given university are perfectly free to refuse anyone employment as long as the refusal is not based on legally prohibited discrimination. If an employer believes that a candidate for employment has exhibited undesirable behavior and is likely to continue to do so, then it needs no further justification not to hire.

    To me, the conditional nature of the offer provided the very protection for the University that it was designed to do.

    • I think you’re wrong for two main reasons. First of all, Salaita was hired. That’s the judgment of the AAUP, and even the CAFT report says that deserves some protection based on his advanced hiring status. If you say he wasn’t hired until the Board approved, then you would have to claim that some professors in the process of teaching classes don’t have academic freedom.

      Second, you’re wrong in assuming that hiring decisions have no connection to academic freedom. By that logic, a university could ban the hiring of Communists and you would have to say that has nothing to do with academic freedom, an odd position to take. Also, you would have to say that adjuncts have no academic freedom, because they are constantly being hired for the next semester. That again is a position that the AAUP (and Cary Nelson) would reject.

      • John,

        Thank you for your thoughts and quick reply.

        I am new to this discussion and am unfamiliar with the AAUP’s judgment or the CAFT report. My opinion that Salaita was not hired is based entirely on contract law and routine contract interpretation. I have no idea how the AAUP came to its conclusion that Salaita was hired in light of the documentation that I have seen. I recognize that legal scholars can disagree all day long about interpretation, and perhaps there is a lot more, but I am just going on what I have read here.

        I am not following your assertion that my logic requires that I claim “…some professors in the process of teaching classes don’t have academic freedom.” I am guessing that you are saying that these professors have yet to receive Board approval. My answer here is simple. If they are teaching – with or without prior Board approval – they are clearly considered hired. The act of teaching serves to finalize their contract and yes, they have academic freedom.

        To your point that I am wrong in assuming that hiring decisions have no connection to academic freedom, I take issue with that particular characterization. There is a connection to academic freedom in hiring only in the sense that one would hope a university would welcome diversity and divergent views. But there is no right or entitlement to be hired. So yes, I do believe that a given university has the right to not hire Communists if it so desired. Whether or not that is a good idea is largely irrelevant. The protection that academic freedom offers belongs to those who are already hired. It does not afford mere candidates for employment special rights.

        To your point that my logic would require the inference that, “…adjuncts have no academic freedom, because they are constantly being hired for the next semester,” again I beg to differ. I do believe that they have academic freedom, but as you imply, it is much more limited. I don’t see them fired while employed. But I do recognize that the nature of their employment requires an annual review. And so, there can be a somewhat chilling effect on what opinions they offer if they wish to have a renewed contract. Of course, this concern is exactly why tenure is so desirable.

        • Thanks for your response. The AAUP letter is here, and the CAFT report (here) discusses the issue at length and very well on pages 11-16. The key issue is that academic freedom is not an issue of contract law. If you say that a professor teaching has been hired regardless of the contract, then you agree that the contract is not supreme. Considering that Salaita had already been assigned classes and started work preparing on them, I don’t see why the start of classes is a magic moment in hiring that makes it the only exception. Obviously, I have a very different conception of academic freedom, that it is a set of fundamental values guiding universities, and not simply a right limited to professors under tenure. And a violation of academic freedom is not the same as an entitlement to be hired. It doesn’t make much sense to me that a professor being hired with tenure has no protections, while one seeking promotion to tenure has extremely powerful rights, and that the university is permitted to dismiss one person for political reasons without regard to academic freedom but is obligated to give tenure to the other who was already employed.

  3. John,

    This replies to your last post:

    Thank you for the links to AAUP and CAFT. Having looked them over, I am reminded of the saying that things are not always as they appear. Context helps.

    A few points to clarify:

    1. “If you say that a professor teaching has been hired regardless of the contract, then you agree that the contract is not supreme.”

    You misunderstand my position. The contract is still supreme. The act of allowing a professor to teach effectively removes the conditional aspect of the offer requiring BoT approval. A valid contract can exist and arise by certain actions of the parties. Allowing a professor to teach waives the condition.

    2. “Considering that Salaita had already been assigned classes and started work preparing on them, I don’t see why the start of classes is a magic moment in hiring that makes it the only exception.”

    Excellent point. And I suppose a court will have to make the judgment of whether or not the University’s allowing all that to happen will effectively waive the BoT approval requirement and rule that he was, indeed, “hired.” At the very least, it seems to me that Salaita has a claim for out of pocket expenses based on the doctrine of “detrimental reliance.”

    3. I am not sure that we have such differing views on academic freedom as much as I believe that we live in a real legal world where the sanctity of a contract overrules the university world and its interpretation of academic freedom.

    4. “It doesn’t make much sense to me that a professor being hired with tenure has no protections, while one seeking promotion to tenure has extremely powerful rights…”

    It might make sense if you distinguish the new candidate for tenure as a mere applicant from the one seeking promotion as an existing employee. Now in Salaita’s case, the CAFT report, as you know, notes that he was “neither an applicant nor an employee” and therein lies the difficulty – or should I say my misinterpretation. I previously viewed Salaita as a mere applicant and felt he did not have the academic freedom protections that you felt he should have. In that regard, the CAFT report seems to support my position. It notes (p. 12) that “…were he to be an applicant, neither of these (referring to rights granted BoT approved candidates such as academic freedom) would apply.

    John, I appreciate the great discussion. I learned a lot. I thank you for sharing your insights.

  4. Before civility clauses were found in university policies, civility was earlier visited in the legal profession: search “civility” + “lawyers” as http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/DisplayAbstractSearch.cfm . These papers may have a great deal in them to assist in framing nuanced arguments. I think in particular of Alice Woolley’s paper ‘Uncivil by Too Much Civility’? Critiquing Five More Years of Civility Regulation in Canada.’ Her abstract: “This paper revisits criticisms of the civility movement made in an earlier paper (“Does Civility Matter?” (2008) 46 Osgoode Hall L.J. 175). It argues that Canadian law societies remain concerned with lawyer incivility, even though bringing surprisingly few formal prosecutions against lawyers for incivility. In a few cases the law societies’ concern can be justified insofar as lawyer incivility in those cases appears to correlate with serious professional dysfunction. Generally, however, the focus on incivility is counter-productive. First, in several cases the focus on lawyer incivility elides the complex and difficult ethical issues raised by the behaviour of the lawyers in question. Disciplining lawyers for incivility when their conduct was substantively unethical avoids consideration of precisely why their conduct was improper, and ignores the implications of that analysis for the ethical duties of lawyers in general. Second, the civility movement envisages a narrow conception of the “good lawyer” and risks reifying a patrician model of advocacy. Finally, civility regulation has the potential to chill proper advocacy, particularly for vulnerable clients. Law societies who discipline lawyers for making the right argument in words that were poorly chosen, discourage what they ought to encourage.”

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