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From the President: Civility

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

Campuses have been rushing to deal with the issue of civility in the aftermath of the dismissal of Steven Salaita from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. One of the main reasons given for the governing board’s action was a lack of civility in Salaita’s remarks on Twitter, which condemned Israeli government practices.

Since Salaita’s firing a number of chancellors and provosts have issued statements on the importance of civility. Even before it, Rutgers University had planned Project Civility to help promote civility on campus, the University of Nevada at Las Vegas had issued a “Statement of Civility,” George Mason University had launched a course on Professionalism and Civility, and the University of Wisconsin had hosted a two-day workshop on Civility in Everyday Life.

The issue of civility on campus is part of a broader concern about civility in the workplace and a perceived lack of civility in society in general. National surveys show that Americans believe we have a real problem with civility. Factors that are often listed as contributing to incivility are technology, racism, sexism, homophobia, substance abuse, and the political climate.

Webster’s dictionary defines civility as “polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior.” The Institute for Civility in Government defines it as “more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same.”

But while calls for civility may be well intentioned, they can be at odds with democratic progress, the right to free expression, and academic freedom.

It should be noted that there is nothing new about incivility in American public life. The presidential campaigns of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were full of personal attacks. Jefferson was labeled a Francophile and an atheist, and Adams was labeled an Anglophile and portrayed by Alexander Hamilton as unstable, impulsive, and irrational, and unfit to be president.

It is also true that American history, like world history, is full of violent and troubling events. The United States grew by committing genocide against Native Americans and enslaving millions of Africans. Even after the end of slavery, thousands of African Americans were lynched, more were subject to virtual enslavement by the penal and economic systems in the South, and essentially all were denied the most basic human rights. Women were allowed neither property rights nor the right to vote. Our history is full of attacks on various immigrant groups; witness, for example, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Recently, law professor Michelle Alexander has documented what she refers to as the “New Jim Crow,” the systematic imprisonment and disenfranchisement of African Americans via the war on drugs. We have recently witnessed several shootings of unarmed African Americans by police. We have seen attempts by some Republican politicians to disenfranchise millions of Americans in the name of preventing (almost nonexistent) voter fraud. We should hardly be surprised to observe individuals and groups reacting in a manner that is not “polite, reasonable, and respectful.” Looking back, we can say that some important gains in rights for women and racial minorities were due to the “uncivil” behavior on the part of those who spoke out, protested, and demonstrated against the status quo.

If the newfound quest for civility in higher education tramples on freedom of speech or limits academic freedom, then higher education will have paid a dear price and will be less able to serve the common good. How can we expect a vibrant democracy, which requires that all be able to speak their views (regardless of the proximity of ivy), if students or faculty fear expulsion or firing when they tell it like they see it on the quad, in the classroom, in their research, or on Facebook or Twitter?

Whatever you think of politics in the Middle East and whether you agree with or abhor the views of Steven Salaita, trying to stifle free expression and academic freedom in the name of civility is at best misguided and at worst a cynical attempt to undermine democracy.

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