Sunday, September 14, 2014

Normalizing Civility, Policing Critique, Enforcing Silence and Misunderstanding Collegiality

How we ought to understand the terms "civility" and "collegiality" and to what extent they can be enforced as professional norms are dominating discussions in academic journalism and the academic blogosphere right now.  (So much so, in fact, that it's practically impossible for me to select among the literally hundreds of recent articles/posts and provide for you links to the most representative here.)  Of course, the efficient cause of civility/collegiality debates' meteoric rise to prominence is the controversy surrounding Dr. Steven Salaita's firing (or de-hiring, depending on your read of the situation) by the University of Illinois only a month ago, but there are a host of longstanding, deeply contentious and previously seething-just-below-the-surface agendas that have been given just enough air now by the Salaita case to fan their smoldering duff into a blazing fire.

In the interest of full disclosure, I'll just note here at the start that I articulated my concerns about (and opposition to) policing norms of civility/collegiality or otherwise instituting "codes" to enforce such norms some months ago (March 2014) in a piece I co-authored with Edward Kazarian on this blog here (and reproduced on the NewAPPS site) entitled "Please do NOT revise your tone."  My concern was then, as it remains still today, that instituting or policing norms of civility/collegiality is far more likely to protect objectionable behavior/speech by those who already possess the power to avoid sanction and, more importantly, is likely to further disempower those in vulnerable professional positions by effectively providing a back-door manner of sanctioning what may be their otherwise legitimately critical behaviors/speech.  I'm particularly sympathetic to the recent piece "Civility is for Suckers" in Salon by David Palumbo-Liu (Stanford) who retraces the case-history of civility and free speech and concludes, rightly in my view, that "civility is in the eye of the powerful."

It should go without saying, I hope, that no one is "pro-incivility" or "pro-uncollegiality," no one is anti-civility or anti-collegiality.  It's a gross, but increasingly common, mischaracterization of critics of civility norms in these debates, myself included, to suggest as much.  The fact that such characterizations persist and continue to be repeated and/or insinuated is evidence of our terrible habit-- in American public discourse, in academia and worst of all in my discipline of Philosophy-- to permit complex and complicated thought to be framed in reductively Manichean terms.  The debate surrounding the moral/political permissibility of abortion serves as a telling analogue, I think.  Despite the fact that these debates figure one side as "pro-life," careful thinkers understand (or ought to understand) that no one is "anti-life," just as no one is "pro-abortion."  To adequately appreciate the nuance, not to mention the substantive content, of the "pro-life" opposition's side requires first allowing for the possibility that there is an oppositional discourse and an oppositional frame-- in this instance, the discourse and frame of "choice"-- at work.

One can punch and fight, then strike the flint of ire, at straw men all day long.  Nary a victory will be won.  One may stir up a mighty cloud of straw and a brief, blazing, phenomenal but fugacious fire... but nothing of any substance will have been burned.

To wit, it's worth considering the real substance of certain (material, political, social and professional) conditions that ground reservations expressed by critics of civility codes/norms. What are the possible conditions under which a reasonable person, who is otherwise and in principle committed to civility and collegiality, might oppose codes that would effectively enforce those norms?  Under what conditions might a reasonable person be justified in his or her suspicion that such codes of civility/collegiality enforcement-- instead of securing a space for reciprocal engagement and respect among conversants, instead of determining the limits of minimally-decent interpersonal relations, instead of fostering the sorts of habits that are most conducive to a culture of free and open intellectual exchange-- rather, in effect, make it impossible to be (or to be taken to be) civil or collegial?

If it is impossible for you to imagine such conditions, below is a (non-exhaustive) list of examples.  I suspect that many of these would hold as true in other academic disciplines, but I've compiled the following with particular attention to the way that civility/collegiality is used and abused as a way of enforcing norms in my own discipline of professional Philosophy:
  1. You are a woman. Statistically, if you are a woman who has managed to land a steady job in professional Philosophy, you are already in the minority.  If you represent more than 1/5 of your department, you are an exception.  There is a long, historical and ideological prejudice on the part of Philosophers, somewhat ameliorated (but not significantly diminished) in the last half-century, that figures the discipline of Philosophy as antithetical to the "nature" and/or "capacities" of women.  As a consequence, women's voices, especially when they are critical, are often taken to be hostile, aggressive, antagonistic, irrational or (in a pejorative sense) emotional.  Should you find yourself in such conditions, it is more than likely that anything you say that might be critical, oppositional, non-representative of the majority view, or in almost any other way fault-finding will be viewed as lacking collegiality or civility.
  2. You are non-White.  See above in re the statistical rarity of non-White professional philosophers. Also see point (1) above in re the manner in which non-white philosophers' critical views are viewed as hostile, aggressive, antagonistic, irrational or emotionally-motivated.  If you are Black, add to that the extra disadvantage of your allegedly "aggressive" criticism being construed as potentially violent.  If you are Latino/a, add to that the extra disadvantage of your allegedly "aggressive/emotional" criticism being construed as overly-simplistic and/or too attached to particular political agendas.  If you are Asian, add to that the extra disadvantage that whatever you say will be exoticized and summarily dismissed as not worthy of the serious attention of Western philosophers.  Again, see (1) above in re why you might be suspicious that anything you say is likely to run up against your colleagues' views of what counts as civil/collegial behavior.
  3. You are non-tenured.  Whatever your sex, gender-identity, race, religion, ability or disability,  nationality, class or sexual orientation, your only secure option when it comes to being viewed by your colleagues as civil or collegial is to limit the entirety of your professional activities to nodding  (not to mention voting) affirmatively, assuming the position, and saying something more or less to the effect of "yes, thank you sir, may I have another?" It really doesn't matter, in your case, what any potential codes of civility/collegiality require in fact.  You will fall afoul of them if it is necessary to your senior colleagues to demonstrate as much; you will be the exemplar of them if it is useful to your senior colleagues to demonstrate as much.  You can't win on your own merits.  
  4. You are disabled.  I don't like the term "disabled," which even I can see is as ableist as the term "non-White" is racist, but (alas!) this is unfortunately what our as-yet-unrefined language permits at the moment. I was rightfully called out on my own inattentiveness to the use of ableist language (here) recently, which gave me pause to re-read many ofmy own posts with a new sensitivity and also to make a conscientious effort to write with a new sensitivity, so I am much more aware of the sorts of default prejudices that many of us operate with when it comes to pointing out the many and varied ableist nuances of our everyday language.  For just the most recent example of the kind of backlash that results from daring to criticize bad habits such as mine, see Jon Cogburn's post not only in defense of, but also in praise of ableist language. No wonder that critics of ableist speech would be worried about being viewed as incivil or uncollegial.
  5. You are queer. I use "queer" in part to refer broadly to those persons who identify as one or more of the identities encapsulated in the LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and transsexual, questioning/queer, intersexed, ally and asexual) designation.  But I emphasize "queer" here for ideological reasons, namely, that the way "queer" and "queering" functions, conceptually, is almost always in ways that will inevitably be judged to be contrary to norms or codes of civility and collegiality.  Queer speech, queer behavior, queer thought and philosophy, queer acts and performative enactments are meant to disturb, unsettle, oppose, antagonize and call into question the deepest of our assumed normative codes.  That is their purpose and, in my view, their virtue.  If you are queer, or queering, such codes will always find you in violation.
  6. You hold an unorthodox, unpopular or contentious political view (either vis-á-vis your immediate departmental colleagues or vis-á-vis the more general academic and/or civic public).  Not much more to say here except see: Steven Salaita.
  7. You belong to one of the groups noted in 1-5 above and also advocate a dissenting view.  God (or whatever) help you if you fall in this unfortunate #7 category, which most of you/us who occupy one or more of the categories articulated in 1-5 almost certainly do.  And God (or whatever) help you if your find yourself in the wretchedly grim situation of having your livelihood determined by virtue of your civility and/or collegiality, because you will most certainly lose.  This is the category in which the dangers of civility/collegiality codes is the most obvious and, as a consequence, the most objectionable.  Would that it were the case that this was a rare or insignificant category of persons.  It is neither.
As I said above, I am sure the this list is non-exhaustive, though I do believe it is tellingly representative.  The point is, of course, that one need not be anti-civility or anti-collegiality to oppose the institution of enforceable codes/norms of such on the basis of an enormous amount of evidence demonstrating the grossly asymmetrical manner in which divergent expectations of civility/collegiality are enacted.

When it comes down to it, I find it hard to imagine any articulation of a civility or collegiality "code" that does not amount to, in substance, "be nice or leave."  That is to say, normalizing civility, because it has been and continues to be little more than a manner of policing critique, ends up being in effect a way to enforce silence among the least-advantaged and, as a consequence, constitutes the very worst misunderstanding of collegiality.  

1 comment:

  1. This list ignores the possibility of antisemitism, which is strange considering recent events.


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