Thursday, July 10, 2008

civility in public dialogue

Civility is the last refuge of a scoundrel.*

Lately I've been leafing through the Association for the Study of Higher Education's Reader on university and college management. It's recommended by Marc Bousquet, author of How The University Works, his trenchant, decidedly one-sided, and in my view almost entirely accurate analysis of the day-to-day economic and social relations of production in US higher education. Bousquet recommends reading the ASHE tome (it's 600 pages) to see how administrators have learned to think about higher education institutions.

One major theme is an eerily Hobbesian notion of higher education as a wild state of nature, an anarchical tumult in need of leadership, direction, and control. That basic ideological move puts the reader in the position of interpreting everything that takes place on a college campus as the result of a manager's having worked out some method for reining in the wild impulses of the folks roaming freely across the campus (faculty and students) and turning them toward some productive purpose. So, anything that appears to that reader as contrary to that reader's chosen purpose, that reader's direction and control, appears as an outbreak of anarchy and wildness.

One way this manifests itself in the everyday life of the institution has been bugging the shit out of me for a couple years now: calls for "civility." It never fails that faculty statements of dissent - even when they are logically and dispassionately composed - are met with replies from administrators calling for more civil discourse. (I will leave aside for now the actual content of administrator's responses, which in my opinion most often tend to be disingenuous when they aren't completely evasive or dismissive.) It's annoying when administrators complain that faculty are being shrill or disruptive, but I'm most appalled at the accusations that faculty are being overly argumentative or confrontational. Academic discourse is argumentative and confrontational. That's what academic conferences are all about. It's not the most socially pleasant behavior, I confess, but it's part of how we're all trained to act.

In any event, the call for civility is clearly a thin veil for a quite different discursive agenda. On one level, it's a scolding to the naughty boys and girls in the faculty who backtalk. On another, it's another form of evasion. It's also a revoltingly passive-aggressive act, a dismissal of the issue on the basis of an alleged objection to the tone of voice. Most importantly (and this is something I don't think all my colleagues quite dig), the demand for civility is an imposed restriction on discourse, with a broad, ambiguous meaning and power-effect. It attempts to restrict not only what one says, how one says it, in what forum and in what context, but also who speaks, when, how often. The demand is to meet the criterion of civility called for by the one demanding it - a criterion always left unstated (this is the key to the ambiguity of the power of the demand). It attempts to determine the speakable and the unspeakable, the (legit) speaker and one spoken to (and of). All of which is why it's the most popular item in the catalogue from Althusser-Foucault Power Tools.

I should point out I'm not referring to any particular incident of the last couple years. This is a trend, in political dialogue as well as in university governance (how many times have we heard politicos calling for more "civility" in Congress - as though how politely they address one another is as important as whether they're voting to spend federal money on continuing a hopeless military campaign, for instance). It's akin to the way appeals to the value of "free speech" are used to push a political agenda - but that's another story, I suppose.

*Apologies to Johnson.


Robert Kirkman said...

Interesting. I've long thought of "civility" as a basic requirement of political deliberation in a democratic system, but here it is being used as a means of evasion and passive-aggressive manipulation . . .

Maybe we're dealing with two different kinds of "civility" - one that entails a commitment to open discourse constrained only by the requirement of offering public reasons (call it civility-1), the other entails the fear of offending or, perhaps more to the point, being offended or in any way threatened in one's position of power (call it civility-2).

People calling for civility-2 can only get away with it because civility-1 is a genuine virtue of democratic citizenship. Problem is, civility-1 does not mean we all have to refrain from offending anyone or from saying things that make people uncomfortable or that threaten the power of those who don't deserve it.

But maybe that's just my opinion. Hope I didn't offend anyone.

Doc Nagel said...

In fact, Lauren suggested that I put "civility" in scare-quotes throughout this post, to mark something very like this distinction. Exploiting the equivocation is the mark of this strategy as well as the "free speech" and "balance of opinion" strategies.

In any case, it goes without saying that I'm deeply offended.

Robert Kirkman said...

You're offended? That's kinda shrill, don't you think?