Weekly Read December 1, 2014

The Civility Battle: Does ‘civility’ really mean censorship?

By Jason Walta, Esq.

5 thoughts on “Weekly Read December 1, 2014

  1. Comments may be submitted by scrolling down until you see the comment box. We invite you to post your thoughts, links to articles, or writings you have authored. Opinions published here do not necessarily represent the policies of either the AAUP or NAAC. This is not a moderated Forum, but we reserve the right to take down comments that lack collegiality or civility, are obscene or vulgar, contain commercial solicitation or advertisements, infringe on intellectual property, encourage illegal activities, violate laws or considerations of privacy.

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  2. This week’s Weekly Read, “The Civility Battle: Does ‘civility’ really mean censorship?” by Jason Walta, addresses the intersection between civility and academic freedom.

    P. M. Forni argues that being civil means “being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of awareness.” Similarly, effective shared governance is built on the principles of mutual respect, open lines of communication, and inclusive decision-making.

    The principles of academic freedom are paramount to empowering our students and ourselves. Civility, according to Yale law professor Stephen Carter, “is the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together.” However, the ideals of civility were never intended to silence or control classroom instruction. The sharing of ideas, even if the ideas are controversial in nature, can be presented in a responsible manner. Thus, sharing the vast knowledge of our discipline with our students should never be offered as “the sacrifice.” Civility promotes the freedom of diverse and or dissenting expression; and with this freedom: a measure of respect and responsibility. As the AAUP policy points out, civility and collegiality are not synonymous. Genuine collegiality “protects a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrators.” aaup.org/issues/civility

    May we remember the contemporary proverb “our words shape our world.” In the spirit of civility, “stakeholders” i.e. trustees, administrators, and members of the community must dialogue with faculty to respect and understand the nuances of the classroom, and faculty must exercise their freedom with a measure of respect and responsibility.

    “A teacher affects eternity; he [or she] can never tell where his [or her] influence stops.” —Henry Brooks Adams

    Anissa D. Moore
    Associate Professor, Communications
    Affirmative Action, Chair
    NCC Civility Project, Chair

    References
    (n.d.). Retrieved from aaup.org/issues/civility
    Carter, S. (1998). Civility: Manners, morals, and the etiquette of democracy (p. 11). New York: Basic Books.
    Forni, P. (2002). Choosing civility: The 25 rules of considerate conduct (p. 9). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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  3. I fully agree with Prof. Anissa Moore that civility empowers and enables members of the academic community to interchange ideas and points of view in a manner designed to underwrite academic freedom and freedom of speech, to protect (as courts have found in commentary on Amendment One) the rights of “the least of these” (politically and ideologically speaking) to free expression. Furthermore, civility is a guarantor of our claim, in academia, to be a “protected space,” a censorship-free-zone which grants academicians “privilege” that they/we may surely use to contribute to the greatest good of the greatest number.

    Two recent cases come to mind that help me reimagine the civility-freedom spectrum: those of Steven Salaita and Michael Brown.

    Leaving aside the troubling abuse of faculty governance and contract law implied by Ms. Wise’s arbitrary action, we find that Dr. Salaita was called to account, somehow, for his political speech in social media — an unjustified extension of the university’s corporate power in a realm that exists outside the space of employer-worker relations. Finally, the OCCASION for the use of his comments as a kind of “last straw” for the U of Illinois administration was the same event that sparked outrage across the western world and that has led to an explosion of protest in social media, on youtube, and in other academic organizations: the brutal Israeli attack on the people of Gaza. In other words, Dr. Salaita’s words, even the “F” word, in context constituted political speech. (So for that matter did the charged, angry words of poet and professor Rafeef Ziadeh in her performance, “Holding Our Ground,” in Chicago earlier this week.) As Wise could not shut down political speech, she attempted to shut down a political speaker and thereby violated the spirit of academic freedom as well as that of civility.

    The iconic gesture that emerged from the assassination of unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August, “Hands up! Don’t shoot!” has now become a permanent part of the USA’s vocabulary of justice/injustice and freedom/unfreedom. Those who practice the use of this gesture, be they NYC students walking out of class in protest yesterday or members of the St. Louis Rams taking the field in a recent NFL game, are exemplars of civility, as they insist by their actions that peaceful protestors and unarmed citizens may occupy the moral high ground, that the signifier of presumed innocence is the very shield and sword of justice. The contrary spirit, the anger of the Missouri police at the Rams’ behavior or the carping in the press against the continuing protests, prefers justification for bad behavior to cleaving to the rules of civility. This clash of perspectives on civility is glaringly obvious to all, including the people of Gaza, who vocally identify with the people of Ferguson.

    We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes, and the road to freedom, academic and otherwise, is paved with civil discourse. I thank the AAUP for providing leadership on the this road and faculty like Profs. Moore, Salaita, and Cornel West for showing us that civility and freedom walk hand in hand.

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  4. How true the quote below seems today…

    “Where there are fundamental conflicts over values, they should not be ignored in a sentimental yearning for consensus. The problem in our communities today is not that we have conflict, but that we manufacture conflict and exaggerate differences to the point where it is very difficult to make meaningful change.”
    Frederick Douglass

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  5. As Bob Avakian and Cornel West agreed at a recent forum in Riverside Church, the time is long gone when our system can easily and gradually make meaningful change. TO paraphrase Douglass, fundamental conflicts PRODUCE change. It can, must, and will be dramatic!

    The movement of students for recognition — their common cause with one another and with struggling teachers and workers — their understanding that our country is in deep crisis — these are the missing pieces that, when placed in the puzzle of American life — within and without academia, will make the full picture leap into life!

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