Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Order of Civility

On Friday, Chancellor Dirks of UC Berkeley released an open statement to his campus community that seeks to define the limits of appropriate debate at Berkeley.  Issued as the campus approaches the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, Chancellor Dirks' statement, with its evocation of civility, echoes the language recently used by the Chancellor of the University of Illinois, Urbana and the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois (especially its Chair Christopher Kennedy) concerning the refused appointment of Steven Salaita. It also mirrors language with the effort by the University of Kansas Board of Regents to regulate social media speech and the Penn State administration's new statement on civility,  

There are historical ironies here enough to make a satirist happy for years.  At Illinois, donors, alumni, and some conservative activists have argued that Professor Salaita should not be allowed to teach at Urbana to ensure that Jewish students are comfortable. They seem oblivious to the fact that it was alleged incivility of Jews that was used to justify the exclusion and marginalization of Jews at American colleges and universities in the 19th century and a sizable portion of the twentieth century.  To be sure, his critics are not calling for Salaita to be denied an appointment simply because he is a Palestinian-American; there is nothing so uncivil as that going on. But then Jews were excluded because of what their critics deemed their uncivil behavior. 

At Berkeley, Chancellor Dirks, in his efforts to set the limits of civility, appears not to see the ways that he repeats the 1960s demonization of the FSM (hardly praised in California in the early 1960s) as themselves barbarians at the gates of proper university discourse and debate.  Although each of these administrative statements have responded to specific local events, the repetitive invocation of "civil" and "civility" to set limits to acceptable speech bespeaks a broader and deeper challenge to intellectual freedom on college and university campuses.  Because it is forward looking it may be best to start by looking more closely at Chancellor Dirks' statement.


As with so many of these of these calls, Chancellor Dirks' aims to strike a tone of reasonable fairness and matter-of-fact common sense:

As we honor this turning point in our history, it is important that we recognize the broader social context required in order for free speech to thrive. 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.
Specifically, 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.

As I read this, it was easy to nod at different points: yes, it is important to have ideas and problems "engaged and debated"; of course people should feel "safe" in presenting their ideas and positions; and of course the "boundaries" of many of the issues he raises "have never been fully settled."  But for me it is impossible to hold that moment for long.  Instead, what seems clear is the vagueness of the categories, the shift from the unsettled boundaries to the insistence on how one should debate, the paternalistic instruction in manners and the culminating gesture (further along in the letter) that "Insofar as we wish to honor the ideal of Free Speech, therefore, we should do so by exercising it graciously."  

And then I shuddered.

If Chancellor Dirks is right we would have to repudiate much of the intellectual traditions and practices he claims to be defending.  As the great English historian Edward Thompson put it in a review of Raymond Williams The Long Revolution:

Burke abused, Cobbett inveighed, Arnold was capable of malicious insinuation, Carlyle, Ruskin and D. H. Lawrence, in their middle years, listened to no one. This may be regretable: but I cannot see that the communication of anger, indignation, or even malice, is any less genuine.... And it is easy for the notion of “good faith” to refer, not only to the essential conventions of intellectual discourse, but also to carry overtones—through Newman and Arnold to the formal addresses of most ViceChancellors today—which are actively offensive.

Thompson's point--which he put without too much graciousness--is that the calls for civility are, in fact, not true to the intellectual traditions they claim to develop and respect. Whatever the immediate intentions of the chancellors, the emphasis on civility as essential to intellectual, and yes political, arguments render debate anodyne and could only be achieved by bowdlerizing many of the great intellectual interventions of the last few centuries.  

But the problem is broader than a misapprehension of the past.  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.


These problems are expressed in two different ways in the Salaita case.

First, the justification that the Illinois administration and Board has provided concerns the incendiary and, for many, offensive nature of some of Professor Salaita's tweets.  Given that all the evidence I have seen shows that his tweets have no connection to his pedagogy or relationship with his students and his encouragement of them to think for themselves, there is no educational relevance to his twitter account.  It is, in part this confusion of venues that has led a remarkable number of professional organizations, from the American Anthropological Association to the American Historical Association through the American Comparative Literature Association to the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle Eastern Studies Association of America (to name only a few recent ones) to condemn the University administrations decision and its basis.  But the issue goes beyond this particular case.  As Natalie Zemon Davis pointed out--in her own letter to Chancellor Wise--twitter as a medium has its own rhythms and forms of engagement.  It is designed--when not simply providing for publicity or celebrity gossip--to be a form of provocation a call to alertness. Now, I don't tweet.  I don't particularly enjoy its form and I prefer longer-form modes of argument and elaboration.  But if you are going to evaluate statements in a particular medium then you must understand the rules of the medium.  If you don't then you risk following in the footsteps of those who condemned modernism as "decadent art."

Second, there is the imbalance in the relationship of the police and the policed.  The expressed concern at Illinois concerns the imagined possibility of Professor Salaita imposing political opinions upon his students or of making them feel unwelcome in his classes.  As I noted in my last post on the case this concern runs in the face of the actual evidence of his teaching.  But Chancellor Wise and the Board's concern for the closing off of debate seems remarkably narrow.  Who after all has the greater ability to curtail intellectual engagement: one lone tweeter or a University's management? This point is one made with great force in a statement by UIUC faculty from across the University's departments. Having described the background to Chancellor Wise's decision, the faculty point out that:

This makes it all the more troubling that the Chancellor and Board have described this decision as a victory for civility, academic excellence, and “robust debate.”  Their statements leave us to ponder how one upholds civility by overriding the decision-making of faculty members and deans without consultation or due process. How, we must ask, does one foster academic excellence by making academic decisions without the advice of scholars in the field?  Can it really be that debate is best served by secretive decision-making that silences dissent?  Recent reporting on this issue suggests that particular donors may have had an impact on this decision and that a task force will soon be charged to “develop a new process” for situations in which the chancellor “does not agree with a hiring decision.”  This seems to represent a radical departure from principles of shared governance which have been the bedrock of academic excellence on this campus.  

Civility in this context enables managerial intrusion into the academic review process and the dismissal of the measured evaluation of both faculty and academic administrators closest to the issue. Indeed, the evidence suggests that the drive to overturn the appointment came through back-door threats from donors to cease their contributions if Professor Salaita was allowed to take up his appointment. Secrecy and non-academic issues trumped the established protocols for making appointments.  All in the name of civility.

I understand (and indeed have argued in different contexts) that public universities have responsibilities to the public.  That is one reason for my opposition to the rapid expansion of out of state and international students at State universities.  

But it is a far cry from serving the needs of your state public and responding to the demands of selective donors who are using their financial power to demand intrusions into academic life.  Administrators can argue as much as they want that they are protecting the rich and open traditions of their institutions; but if they are even allowing the appearance--to say nothing of the reality--that decisions at a University can be sold to the highest bidder then they have failed their institutions badly.  To be sure, administrators are, and should be, part of the academic review process, but they must be administrators internal to the process and making decisions based on academic criteria.  When managers and boards seek to overturn an academic decision because of their fear of making donors and others unhappy, they are betraying the best traditions of the institutions they govern.  And they should be ashamed of themselves.

Sadly, I don't expect Christopher Kennedy to understand this point.  He is, after all, a person who can insist on the one hand that real discussion and debate requires "a lot more effort than having a shouting match or name calling," and on the other showed no reluctance to call James Kilgore a "domestic terrorist" for violent activities from nearly 40 years ago. Leaving aside the issue that the term "domestic terrorist" is an anachronism it is hard to see how calling Kilgore a "domestic terrorist" in the present is anything but "name calling" and as the Board of Trustees put it in their attempt to justify Chancellor Wise's actions in the Salaita case "disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice."  In the annals of academic managerial self-contradiction this one ranks high.  And while I can understand why Chair Kennedy might not have wanted to vote in favor of granting emeritus status to William Ayers it is hard to see how he wouldn't have recused himself from the proceedings--if his desire was for an open and non-prejudiced debate.  But because he speaks from the position of authority no one is going to police or punish him at the University.  The arbitrariness of civility and its uses is, one might say, a truth self-evident.


But I would expect Chancellor Dirks to understand.  The Chancellor is, after all, a noted scholar of Indian history.  Among his different works is a consideration of the Warren Hastings impeachment trial.  In it he not only engages at length with Edmund Burke's evisceration of Hastings (and Burke was hardly one for avoiding insults in his speeches and writings as the "nabobs" and "swinish multitude" knew well) but also with the ways that, despite Burke's intentions, the trial enabled a long period of English colonial rule justified under the terms of liberal civility.  As the Chancellor must realize, in the long history of its use, the demand for civility is not a demand to enable open debate but a tool for excluding those who don't abide by your standards.

It is for this reason that Chancellor Dirks' statement is so dismaying.  Not only does his attempt to define the terms of acceptable discourse extend beyond social media and enter into all interactions on campus; not only does it seek to catch students and staff (the least powerful on a campus) into its net; not only is its vagueness and terms a drastic reduction of the moral courage of the moment it insists it wants to honor, but it is a terrible missed opportunity.

For the Chancellor is correct when he insisted that the Free Speech Movement "made the right to free expression of ideas a signature issue for our campus, and indeed for universities around the world."  To honor that, though, requires a call not for a crimped vision of civility but for open and reasoned debate.  Members of the university community don't need to be told to behave; instead, we need to demand of ourselves that we support our claims with evidence and coherence.  We don't need to pretend that all debates are friendly ones or that there are not real interests in conflict.   If universities in general, and Berkeley in particular, are going to model intellectual discourse and life for the country, it is not going to be imposing some rule of tone; it is going to be by demanding of people that they argue with reasons.  

This is the challenge facing many upper administrators: do they wish to take up the position of managers from above or speak from within the university and campus they inhabit?  It is a particularly acute challenge at a place like Berkeley.   For 2009 made it clear what a managerial response to open debate and protest would look like.   The attitude of the present administration is unclear--at least to me.

We have then a tale of two campuses.  On one, the language of civility has been employed to override the outcome of the academic process and to intrude into the independence of academic decisions.  It has provoked a firestorm of protest.  On the other, it is a fall of remembrance of protest.  50 years ago the claims of free speech confronted the force of the police.  In 2009, student and faculty efforts to preserve the public purpose of the University were met again with force.  What 2014 holds remains to be seen.


  1. My email response yesterday morning to remarks on free speech by the chancellor of my alma mater:

    Dear Chancellor Dirks,

    As an alumnus of UC Berkeley (M.A. 1985, Mellon Fellow), I was chagrined to read about the email you sent to faculty and students regarding free speech. It's clear to me from the email that in fact you do not understand the phrase or the kind of thinking that led its rebel makers to enshrine it in the Constitution. If I were in Berkeley today, I would happily illustrate the true meaning graphically in corpore, as folks in that once blessed reserve of political incorrectness were wont to do. As I am limited to a mere email, I will illustrate the point by simply saying, "Fuck off."

    Yours sincerely,

    Ed Firmage

  2. When academia and academics act in a bubble, more often than not, the result is precisely what is not wanted. The students at Berkeley were a major issue in Reagan's campaign for governor of California in 1966 in which he defeated Pat Brown. And you know what happened after that.

    There are numerous examples of this effect. You are constitutionally free to be uncivil. Free speech, etc. When you act like a child having a tantrum in emails or any other forum that may become public, however, the negative effects go far beyond you. At least Donald Sterling had the excuse of being senile. What's Salaita's excuse? Dan Mitchell

  3. As Dan certainly knows, Reagan also got a lot of political traction by supporting Proposition 14 that aimed to overturn the state's Fair Housing Act. By the logic of his comment, it was bad political strategy to support an end to housing discrimination because white property owners thought it was an uncivil intrusion to make them rent to African Americans, and conservatives rode the backlash into power. Your history lesson just doesn't work, Dan.

  4. Dan Mitchell has a point. The recent book Subversives, about Reagan's rise to power in California and nationally affirms Dan's "history lesson." Reagan effectively used the Free Speech Movement and voters' opinions of it-that weren't favorable at all-to unseat Pat Brown.

    As for Prop 14, the voters passed it overwhelmingly. If it hadn't been for the courts invalidating it, fair housing would not have existed in California for likely decades.

    As for the current free speech ruckus: since 9/11 a broad spectrum of Americans have shown less patience with unfettered free speech. When Bill Ayers visited our CSU campus, students and community members turned out to protest his presence. His past history with the Weathermen was the bone of contention. Earlier, the campus' presentation of alternative views on Palestine and on radical environmentalism provoked national news coverage, outrage from the community and at least one federal grand jury investigation. Some academic careers ended up blighted as a result.

    As long as public universities are dependent on private dollars, this is going to be an issue. As America continues to shift more to the right, this is going to be an issue. As long as academia is thought to have an extreme Leftist bias, this is going to be an issue-that may get hashed out in court.

  5. anon- point well taken. I was a kid when Reagan was running against Brown and used to laugh when he came on the TV with his quavery-voiced denunciations of the light shows at student dances at Berkeley, which made my parents frown at me. But I don't think the US public moved so far to the right on higher ed, or that they are still moving to the right. The Right out organized the center and left so completely that they can now marshall people to protest a 70 year old rep from an ancient movement none of them have ever heard of. It's an organization problem. That's also why faculty are losing their universities. The vast majority just don't get involved in governance of their own institutions, and now they aren't their own. It's not really the Koch brothers or Grover Norquist that have accomplished this--we should thank ourselves even more.

  6. To elaborate a little...

    I believe shared governance has been a failure by and large. Student government (the other side of triangle) often resembles local, state and national government - corrupt and ineffectual. It's a training ground for wannabe politicians.

    On the faculty side, does it have any real teeth, or has it been a mere formality for decades? I'd say the latter. For an example, I'll refer readers to The Slow Death of Fresno State by Ken Seib. What people are talking about now was true when this book was written, 30 years ago.

    My last point about things being hashed out in court- we have a student disciplinary proceeding that's now in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals following dismissal. The student plaintiff wants, among other things, the full cost of his college education paid for by the CSU because of the "extreme leftist bias" on his campus. Although I doubt this will go very far, this student's lawyer is nationally known for being the only attorney to successfully sue the CIA.

  7. @Anonymous Anon--
    Would you by any chance have any links to the court case? Or of coverage of it? I would be very interested to see it. Thanks.

  8. Michael, the case is Neil O'Brien v John Welty. You can google The Real Pedro for O'Brien's spin on things. Some documents are available on the Justia website Cases in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals-you can search that site using the parties names. The District Court documents are posted there.

    O'Brien is quite the Tea Party darling in the Central Valley. He achieved national notoriety when he went after CSU Fresno's student body prez for being an undocumented immigrant in 2009-2010. He brought Tim Donnelly to campus for a confrontation that didn't materialize. He also specialized in ambush videography-that's what landed him in hot water-he invaded two faculty offices and the campus cops were called in.

  9. just revisited this to post in comment to Academe Blog's current "college president and free speech" post

  10. @Vanessa Vaile
    Hi Vanessa, thanks. I appreciate your referencing my post. michawl m


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