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.