Opinion: Civility is Bullshit

It isn’t often that academic hiring decisions become trendy news stories, but the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has finally made it happen. Late this summer, the University announced it was revoking the offer of a tenured associate professorship in American Indian Studies to Steven Salaita due to tweets on Israel-Palestine that were deemed to lack civility. Dr. Salaita is a prolific tweeter, but a few samples from the above-quoted Insider Higher Ed piece should suffice to demonstrate the general tone of the offending material:

For instance, there is this tweet: "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza." Or this one: "By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror." Or this one: "Zionists, take responsibility: if your dream of an ethnocratic Israel is worth the murder of children, just fucking own it already."

I want to suggest that this decision, if allowed to stand, is one that should deeply disturb members of the Boston College community. There is much that could be (and has been) written about Israel-Palestine, social media, academic freedom, the particular way in which UIUC has handled the case, among other subjects, and I have no intention of wading into those discussions here. Rather, I want to consider the notion of “civility” that is at play here, and examine how it functions to create a certain kind of academic community. My intention is neither to take aim at particular scholars, nor to fetishize critique itself, but simply to explore the sort of community we are enacting when civility is a “basic precondition to any meaningful exchange of ideas.” My argument is that, in this case, charges of incivility are deployed as a tool for policing discourses and marginalizing those who voice uncomfortable perspectives. Further, I argue that using “civility” as a regulatory mechanism is profoundly at odds with the mission of the university, which is to provide a space for posing questions that threaten to shatter preexisting social and political paradigms. By making “civility” into a prerequisite for public speech, UIUC protects the political status quo, and thereby abrogates its academic vocation.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have some experience with the sort of tone policing Dr. Salaita is facing, albeit on a much smaller scale. I mention this neither to place myself in the center of the story nor to dredge up issues that I frankly have no interest in re-litigating. I bring it up simply to be open about the position from which I write. The ways in which my experiences may create blind spots in my writing is as open for critique as the writing itself.

Rescinding Steven Salaita’s appointment sends a clear message: the university is not a space of unabridged free speech. “Civility” denotes an academic litmus test, a prerequisite that must be met in order to gain the right to speak in the public sphere. Without civility, not only is the content of one’s speech ignorable, one forfeits the right to future speech. While what constitutes “civility” varies, what stays relatively constant is who gets to define and apply it: political elites and wealthy donors. In other words, people with a direct stake in the political status quo. These individuals, by virtue of their wealth and connections, are granted power, which can be deployed to reward and punish; in other words, to police. It goes without saying that the subjects of Steven Salaita’s work lack such power, and the notion that such asymmetrical access has little or no impact on academic production is patently absurd. Not only is speech in the civil university not free, but one loses one’s freedom to speak precisely at the point where one’s speech poses a threat to the powers that be. Civility, then, is a bourgeois criterion for allowable speech, which is to say, a criterion of domination.

Thus we see that “civility” is a regulatory label deployed exclusively by powerful people against those perceived as overly provocative. Perhaps this helps explain the discrepancy in how “civility” is applied. For instance, why did Ohio University President Roderick McDavis call for civility when Student Senate president Megan Marzac called for divestment from Israel, but fail to mention the death threats she has received in response to her video? Why does Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner not violate civility when he justifies the killing of Gazan children, to the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd? Why does a professor who preposterously claims that Palestinian Arabs only want to destroy Israel and kill the Jews not violate civility? This disparity in outcomes is not an accident; it is a product of a system in which wealthy political elites have a disproportionate influence in policing academic speech. As Corey Robin notes, civility is the “academic flavor of the month” at institutions as disparate as Penn State and Berkeley. But behind these calls for civility lies a thinly-veiled effort to marginalize voices that publicly and vociferously repudiate the “prevailing orthodoxies” of our socio-political moment. If the current trend towards calls for civility persists, we should be deeply suspicious about what the academy is really doing.

Hence my title: civility is bullshit. It is not bullshit in itself, but regnant civility produces a bullshit academic community, which demands, as an implicit price of doing business, a promise not to threaten social, economic and political prevailing orthodoxies. It is bullshit to pretend we are participating in an uncensored exchange of ideas when certain ideas are systematically targeted for exclusion. Note that, while my title is obviously intended to be an ironic performance of incivility, the word “bullshit” is applied very specifically, to denote a discourse that aims at neither truth nor falsity, but rather at something else; namely, impressing and legitimating power. The civil-ization of academic space subdues what ought to be a breeding ground for critical consciousness, rendering safe what ought to be dangerous.

And while “bullshit” might seem like a way of dismissing this problem as insignificant, the bullshit of civility has a much more pernicious function: providing intellectual justification for the very socio-political structures of oppression that scholars like Dr. Salaita call into question, and thereby reproducing them. They are aided in this effort by the veneer of boldness, the appearance of being challenging, which serves only to further legitimate the structures that empower the civility police. “Civility” names the line of demarcation between scholarship that is truly threatening to the political status quo and scholarship that only pretends to be. The bullshit produced by a civil-ized academy may be eloquent bullshit, but it is bullshit nonetheless.

So what can we do? In the present case, we can email the UIUC Board of Trustees and express our outrage at the precedent set for academic communities. For those of us who might have occasion to travel to the University for official business (professors, graduate students, etc), we can refuse to do so in protest of their egregious academic violation. But more broadly, we can call out the nefarious intersection between regnant civility, academic bullshit and structures of political domination. Inevitably, this requires practicing some incivility, which is uncomfortable both because there tend to be official sanctions for doing so in a university context, and because we have largely internalized the bourgeois requirement for civility.

If there is one thing Steven Salaita demonstrates, it’s that incivility is risky. But if, in our fidelity to civility, we restrain our critique of power, we fail to perform our obligations as a university community. While uncritically absolutizing incivility is no better than the contrary, strategic refusal to be civil is called for when civility is used to suppress. The University of Illinois has failed and failed miserably in this case; we don’t have to. One academic, who tellingly remained anonymous for fear of professional reprisal, put it this way: “When power tells you to sit down and shut up, the best answer is to tell power to go fuck itself.” I’m a theology major; that sounds familiar.