Uncivil Civil (In the University)


I think the arguments getting batted around against civility in the university are pretty gross stuff and probably two-faced. I think much of the argument against civility is based on a straw person caricature of civility being something lily white and mild, a hegemonic social form used to manage and to squash free speech and dissent, especially on the part of embattled persons like women and racial minorities. About Jews too, one could recall, it was once said and still said that they are uncivil. But it’s going to be my sense that we’re worse off without civility than with it.

My primary objection to the arguments against civility is the way its critics frame it as something imposed from the top down as a system to control speech. I would instead argue that a more robust and corrigible framing of the concept would have to base itself on it negotiated and consensual character from the bottom up as a necessary but insufficient condition for the possibility of free speech. What’s agreed upon is not the content of “what” we say to each other and even against each other, but the form of “how” we say it. Also, what is agreed upon as civil at one moment in time represents no absolute standard, but rather something whose definitional contour shifts over time.

Second, what is the alternative to civil speech? Uncivil speech is represented as a kind of prophetic truth telling, a political form of action or decision, something that resembles a moral putsch pushed forward by some stalwart band at the avant-garde of forward looking seers, now after it’s held, that dialogue has exhausted itself. But that’s to beg the theopolitical question. On whose authority is one supposed to assess a truth claim if not on the basis of sifting through evidence? Without a critical review, the performance is just that and only that. The public sphere is full or should be full of places where people can stand up and do this kind of truth-telling. But the university is, I would think, not the place for prophecy, i.e. claims to a direct unmediated access to this or that moral or political truth.

Third, there’s nothing in the logic made against civility that would protect women or Muslims or Jews from hate-speech that gussies itself up as “free speech” or “rational speech.”

Fourth, I think these arguments exhibit a case of special pleading. I’m sure if there was language meant to demean Muslims or women, the same people defending the right of anti-Zionist critics to free, unabridged speech would be out to contain and squelch said talk as hate speech. There are very few genuine free-speech absolutists out there, especially in the academy, which is riddled with political hypocrisy and moral cant and posturing, present company not excluded, I suspect.

Fifth, while I realize that arguments about civility, and liberalism writ large, precede the most current debates about Israel and Palestine after Gaza, I’m suspicious that these arguments against civility are being raised with a special heat and vigor particularly around this issue. There’s every reason to suspect that this is a nasty way to silence Jewish critics of Steven Salaita or Jewish supporters of Israel, and a way to shield ant-Zionist activism from its worse forms of abuse.

Sixth, the argument that justifies uncivil speech about Israel is often based on the premise that certain ideological formations like racism or misogyny enjoy no right to protection. This puts the cart before the horse, assuming that Israel or Zionism constitute strains of colonialism, racism, apartheid, and/or genocide, even Nazi-like in its political disposition.

Seven, the argument against civility is self-defeating. It encourages abusive form of speech and distorted points of view. Ultimately, the uncivil person will be shunned by the civil society whose basic norms she or he violates with such patent disregard, and perhaps self-regard. There’s no reason to listen to or consider seriously “what” the uncivil person wants to say precisely because “how” he or she says it is not recognized by a sufficient mass of people effective enough to make political change.

I want to make a firm stand in favor of civility for the attention brought by the very word to the texture and tissue of civil society. I say this while sharing with the skeptic the understanding that civil society remains always a morally and politically compromised thing, almost as a matter of course. There’s no pure vantage point from which to judge civil society in a once and for all way. We can pick apart this or that injustice pervading the social contract even as we scramble to re-write that contract on a more equitable basis, a basis that is always going to be a shifting one.

Maybe it’s better to deconstruct the difference between civility and uncivility. What’s constituted as civil at one time in our cultural history is considered uncivil at another time. In other words, again, civility is something always to be negotiated and re-negotiated, not from above but from the bottom up through a process that will always include trial and error not as an unfortunate by-product, but as a constitutive feature. To deconstruct the difference in a more fundamental way would be to call attention to the fact that the civil contains the seed of the uncivil, insofar as liberal civility demands free speech in a contentious public sphere. At the same time, the uncivil contains the seed of something civil, a new form of civility.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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6 Responses to Uncivil Civil (In the University)

  1. Silke says:

    I wonder whether this isn’t a misconstrual of the objections — from what I’ve seen — and from the viewpoint I share –, nobody’s objecting to standards of civility (in your sense) as a desireable, self-imposed norm — the objections are, I think exclusively, against this norm being imposed punitively from above. In other words, nobody is suggesting that we all run around being nasty and rude, “because freedom” — we are worried that codifying “civility” as a condition of university employment is a very risky move.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Silke. I appreciate and share the argument against top down, adminstrative variant of civility and tolerance. Apart, however, from philosopher Deborah Achtenberg, most of the discussion that I’ve seen has been whole cloth critique of civility. Deborah’s distinction was to draw the difference between “civility” versus civility. The former representing what she and we reject, the latter what we still expect (I hope) from each other.

  2. dmf says:

    yeah I always groan a bit when academics try to sell the humanities as somehow making people more humane/civil…

  3. ej says:

    A particularly interesting and subtle example of the conflict between speaking one’s subjective truth and offending the sensibilities of others is the the resignation of Rabbi Brant Rosen from the Reconstructionist Temple in Evanston. Rabbi Rosen was a difficult voice, and from the perspective of liberal American Jewish opinion unyielding and extreme. Nevertheless I am sorry to see him leave.

    We lack sensitive measuring devices with which to gauge extreme anti Israeli opinions. For me Satmar is a piece of cake, Amira Hass is informative and believable, Chomsky and Finkelstein ok, but Brant Rosen, Mondoweiss, maybe Jacqueline Rose rub me the wrong way.

  4. Alan says:

    Zak, thanks for a very illuminating, thoughtful, and carefully nuanced statement on a divisive subject that rarely is considered independent of a particular kerfuffel. The subject has its ironies for me; some 45 years ago I hit the streets to protest the Vietnam War and complicity my my university in supporting and defending the war. Needless to say, the protestors and demonstrators were criticized for uncivil behavior; indeed, some of our professors, themselves exiles from nazi Europe, were horrified, and some turned neoconservative in response.
    Now more than a generation later, somewhat battle scarred and with a different balance of idealistic enthusiasm and disappointed cynicism, i have come to appreciate the virtues of being able to talk to one another under conditions conducive to actually listening to, hearing, and considering one another’s thoughts, and to examining the factual basis of competing positions and the arguments proceeding from those facts. Actual learning can then take place, as the critical reasoning skills so often celebrated in tomes on liberal education can actually be exercised. Gaps in factual assumptions can be scrutinized and differences narrowed, or the need for further empirical research delineated. Structures of argument can be assessed, and points of departure identified and examined. Differences in values and how they are being applied can be better appreciated. All of these efforts, while not guaranteeing agreement, may narrow differences and point the way toward just resolution, certainly more effectively than harassing fellow students or disrupting meetings called to promote discussion and exchange.
    Zak, I suspect the coming few years may well test the capacity of university campuses to model and promote reasoned discourse on controversial issues. We need to think hard about how to do so. Thanks again for getting us off to such a good start.

    • zjb says:

      Thank you, Alan for this perspective. It’s not that I don’t consider myself left or center left, or these days, maybe just liberal. But I remember watching a film about the protests in Berkeley during the Vietnam War.. To be frank, I found it horrifying to watch the devolution of the protest movement into what look liked violent chaos. Like you, I try not to romanticize protest. I have a deep aversion to violence and crowds that get violent when the opposition to violence is violent. I wonder where that would have put me had that been me. At any rate, whatever happened to “civil disobedience”?

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