Compulsory Civility and the Necessity of (Un)Civil Disobedience

By Judy Rohrer


This article explores “compulsory civility” as a contemporary tool used in the denial of access and belonging to the academy. Compulsory civility is explicitly written into personnel policy, tenure and promotion processes, and student codes of conduct. It is implicitly enforced in institutional culture by way of discourses of “collegiality,” “following proper channels,” “the way we do things,” and “being a team player.”

Compulsory civility can sometimes be difficult to identify and is often mobilized through gaslighting strategies that make us feel wrong, isolated, and alone. Imposter syndrome (tied to histories of exclusion), lack of labor consciousness, and academic (rugged) individualism predispose us to self-doubt and self-blame. The goal of this essay is to share a few different examples across constituencies so that we might be better equipped to identify, and resist, compulsory civility as it operates today. It suggests solidarity and (un)civil disobedience as modes of resistance.

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What’s wrong with “Compulsory Civility?” Is it the compulsion or the civility?

Judy Rohrer boldly states the case for resistance against administrative attempts to stifle free speech and academic freedom under the guise of “compulsory civility.” Although administrations seldom use these words, the intentions implied by a myriad of expectations and well-meaning bits of advice are clear. One must go along to get along, and those who don’t, won’t be allowed to stay on the bus for long. She provides good examples of how this duplicitous strategy has been used to oppress the disabled and disadvantaged. The paper is well organized, the writing is clear and concise, and her ardor is obvious.

Despite the fact I am “an old, white, guy,” I’ve been involved with the struggle for inclusion and diversity for over 50 years. After reading the article, I found myself wondering how effective the call for increased incivility would be. I, myself, have sometimes pushed the boundaries of propriety in my 34 years in the Air Force and 17 years at Berea College. However, time and place considerations often determine the consequences of behavior, and there may be value in pausing to consider some of Rohrer’s assumptions and assertions.

Ultimately Rohrer’s perspective is identitarian and intersectional: a person’s most important characteristics are determined by their apparent memberships in certain identity groups. As a behavioral scientist, with experience interacting with others in many different circumstances, I’ve concluded that differences within groups (and institutions) are far greater than the differences between groups (which are often greatly exaggerated). So, Rohrer’s assumption that education was easy for all of those for whom it was supposedly “designed” is inconsistent with my experience. An undergraduate education at a military academy 50 years ago was designed to be ubiquitous misery… Even today those who might be assigned by others to a position of relative privilege may have their own inconspicuous but weighty baggage (i.e., poverty, food insecurity, ill-health, depression, anxiety, etc.).

Rohrer referred to Captain Richard Pratt’s infamous characterization of education as a means to “kill the Indian but save the man,” as evidence that education obliterates cultural identity. One of the first things to note is that these words were written in 1892 and were in rebuttal to the suggestion that “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” and, thus, spending any money educating Indians was a waste of resources. Rohrer has mischaracterization what was then a progressive plea for integrated and inclusive education rather than “separate but equal” segregation. It is also noteworthy that primary education in the late 19th century may not be particularly relevant to higher education in the early 21st century.

I have trouble reconciling what I know of the perspectives and practices of educators like Maria Montessori, John Dewey, or Albert Einstein with Rohrer’s insistence that higher education’s implicit intent is to homogenize, civilize, and obliterate identity in the process. In their classic monograph on education, Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Postman and Weingartner (1969) suggest that we educate students to become “crap-detectors.” I, honestly, have never considered this to be an exclusive or even elitist ambition. If anything, providing students from disadvantaged groups with analytic and communication skills is likely to be especially beneficial to those who have been disadvantaged, since they are likely to be aware of much of the crap their more privileged classmates have learned to ignore.

One serious flaw in this article is that it is largely argument by anecdote. The examples are illustrative, but are they representative of higher education as whole? Or of institutions like yours? Or your own institution? My guess is that there is great variation between institutions; leadership has a great deal to do with how things seem to be going on campus and in the classroom. The fact that passions are high is all the more reason to conduct local surveys to garner information about the perspectives, perceptions, and judgments of various socio-political tribes and groups on campus. As Madeleine Albright (2018) warns so persuasively, fascism is not an exclusive danger from either the political right or the political left, it occurs anytime those in power use it to suppress the speech of their opponents.

Nonetheless, I do agree with what I consider to be Rohrer’s central theme: concern with civility should not be allowed to stifle freedom of expression or academic freedom. I also agree with her that securing justice for all should be an institutional priority. However, there are several types of justice. The distribution of all the goods, services, and benefits an institution might bestow on its constituents is distributive justice. It is undeniable that, in the past, as well as currently, this distribution is unfair. It is human nature to perceive that the groups with which we align receive less than they’re due. However, there is another type of justice reflected by the Supreme Court motto, “Equal Justice Under Law.” This is the essence of procedural justice. And, of these two types of justice, I, like Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his dissent to Abrams (1919), would assert that it is an advantage to commit to a free and open marketplace of ideas with just enough civility to encourage continuing communication between tribes rather than to continue allegiance to one fighting faith against all others.

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