The Right to Misbehave


As someone who has explicitly defended good manners – or “soft skills” – in academe, the current debate about civility has really cut against my grain. As most of the fifty or so regular readers of this page know, a prominent scholar whose work brings together the histories of colonialism and settlement – and more specifically, the histories of Palestinians and Native Americans – has had the offer of a tenured position revoked because his Twitter feed was too provocative.  The university’s Chancellor, in justifying this revocation, has referenced the need for civility, and has implied that an uncivil presence in social media suggests an uncivil presence in the classroom and on campus. And so, then, the job offer was torn up.

If you don’t know this story, read this and this and this and this.  And read Corey Robin’s thoughtful piece here on what it means to be called out for incivility by so many who are themselves more than a little mean.  And then, seriously, just google the name “Steven Salaita” and let the internet introduce you to the full range of opinions on the subject of his professional exile.

The civility thing is troubling, even for those who advocate for gentle tones and polite discourse in the age of partisan flamethrowers. Most universities have honor codes or student codes or diversity codes that already prescribe an open and safe learning environment, and the recent emphasis on civility – by UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks – is something new, an additional layer with a decidedly different aim.

By all accounts, Salaita is a responsible colleague and a solid teacher.  He has not engaged in any sexual philandering, or gotten blitzed at a recruitment dinner, or mismanaged funds – any one of which might excuse the Chancellor’s demurral.  There is no suggestion that students have been intimidated or felt abused in his classroom. His Twitter feed is dynamic, and contains very strong, even gruesome language, but that has a lot less do with his job and a lot more to do with the military campaigns in Gaza, which haven’t made anyone anywhere (with any opinion on either side) happy.  He does not, as I understand it, teach digital humanities classes, or require students to follow his feed.

I was at the American Studies Association’s hastily organized theatre-in-the-round on BDS last year, staged as the Executive Council moved towards a vote on endorsing the goals of the movement and linking the organization with the expressed aims of Palestinian civil society. It was a charged room, with strong feelings on every side of the issue, and dear friends in every corner. Salaita spoke there – names were drawn, as I recall it, from a hat – along with about a few dozen others. I’d read his pieces in Salon, and recognized him right away, and watched closely. He was impassioned and determined but respectful, committed to his position but mindful that he was there to persuade, surrounded by peers. The finger snaps and the hisses that accompanied his impromptu, brief speech may have seemed a little theatrical to me, and I wasn’t enthused that the outcome of the vote – after explicit endorsements from the sitting president and a very present Angela Davis – was pretty much predetermined.  But the actual rhetorical moment was tame enough and, well, fairly civil, and it made me think very hard about my own politics. There was none of the drama of Twitter present.

I didn’t agree with everything Salaita said that day, but, really, does that matter?  If he and I were talking, and if we weren’t talking about boycotts, I might tell him that I try to be circumspect and perform reasonableness, and we might talk about how that would work in his case, but I’d never mandate that he has to walk my walk and talk my talk.  And without even discussing his own case, he could, after all, very easily point to a number of examples where civility prevented action, where, as Bill Chafe’s book on Greensboro, North Carolina, tells us, “civilities” and “civil rights” were oppositional philosophies, the former dragging the latter down.  “Well behaved women rarely make history,” Laurel Thatcher Ulrich reminds us.  Would we want our world if it hadn’t been reshaped by cycles of moral outrage and political provocations?  I might think it is fascinating that W.E.B. Du Bois and Lothrop Stoddard once staged a very friendly debate about white supremacy in front of an all black audience, but I don’t for a minute believe that this was a moment that changed the course of the civil rights movement.

So while I might ask for good manners and soft skills – even on Twitter – I’ll never prescribe them.  And I can’t abide that anyone else would either.  I think we can be actively engaged in a deeply divisive debate, and model multiple modes of engagement.  If I choose to emphasize politeness in all things and a moderate tone, it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand that are many ways to express the same point. It also doesn’t mean that I’m not myself passionate about these issues. I believe in civility – and I will always believe that it is the basic building block of the most effective, broad-based coalitions, professional networks, and personal friendships – but I don’t want to see it legislated outside or inside of the classroom, in social media, or in the pages of Salon, or anywhere else.

Why?  Because the work we do is supposed to be hard, and story we are supposed to tell is meant to be messy. Inside the classroom, the learning environment has to be respectful of every voice, because everyone is there to learn, and needs an open environment to do it.  There is, though, no need for a hive-mind.  As a former student put it on Facebook, “it speaks well of an institution to have people of various (and outspoken) convictions in its classrooms. Otherwise, education is little more than indoctrination.”

“America isn’t easy,” Michael Douglas says in the cheesy, patriotic romantic comedy, The American President. “America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight. It’s gonna say “You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man whose words make your blood boil, who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours. You want to claim this land as the land of the free? Then the symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest. Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms. Then, you can stand up and sing about the ‘land of the free’.”

That ain’t Marx, people; that is Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin.  From almost twenty years ago.

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