Incivility and politeness: Phyllis Wise and the politics of communicative violence

As more and more information on the firing of Professor Steven Salaita appears, including the letter that was sent to him, it becomes apparent that the language of civility and open dialogue was used precisely to perform violence and to foreclose opportunities for dialogue and debate. In a classic exemplar of communicative inversion, Chancellor Wise, the Board of Trustees of UIUC, and the donors who ran a backdoor campaign to pressure the Chancellor to fire Professor Salaita participated in uncivil behavior.

Politeness, defined as a normative principle of speech, and as integral to codes of civility, has been constructed as the reason for the decision to fire Professor Salaita, based on the implicit argument that impolite speech silences opportunities for dialogue. Civility then, and this is emphasized in the blog post by Chancellor Wise explaining the UIUC decision, closes off discursive spaces and discursive opportunities. When Chancellor Wise states "As chancellor, it is my responsibility to ensure that all perspectives are welcome and that our discourse, regardless of subject matter or viewpoint, allows new concepts and differing points of view to be discussed in and outside the classroom in a scholarly, civil and productive manner,” I assume she understands civility in the same sense, as an invitation to diverse viewpoints.

Taking from this definition of civility that Chancellor Wise offers her readers, one might therefore conclude that speech that is not transparent, subversive, and communicatively inverted is fundamentally uncivil speech as it renders dialogue impossible and silences views that threaten the status quo.

In this post I will argue that claims to politeness work as tools for power structures to perform communicative violence by erasing opportunities for alternative articulations. Moreover, politeness works precisely as a strategy that obfuscates the real agendas and intent amid structures that use politeness as a reason to silence oppositional voices. Politeness norms for instance define that when an administrator in power states, "You are fired," the fired employee can not question the decision. In this instance, politeness norms work precisely to perpetuate the power of the status quo, ensuring that certain forms of communicative behaviors remain marked as impolite and therefore, impossible. To ask why one was fired may be impolite. My suggestion in this blog that Chancellor Wise, a person in power, behaved in uncivil ways by being opaque about her decisions, might be considered impolite.

Politeness, as the calm tone, the studied grace, the performance of neutrality, is deployed as a strategy that silences alternative voices and imaginations while simultaneously it works its logic through the language of multiculturalism, diversity, and difference. Administrators and managers in the neoliberal University are trained everyday in this performance of civility so one can, with a polite but stern smile on the face, state: "Your services are no longer required" when firing a Professor that is too inconvenient for the donors.

The performance of civility as politeness lies in picking the appropriate language, the appropriate tone, and the appropriate combination of words even as decisions with the most devastating effects are served out. The appropriateness of communicative expectations also works in these instances to steer the communicative ritual along the organizational structures of power.

In this post, I will interrogate this very notion of civil behavior as politeness in mainstream norms in Universities and offer a redefinition of incivility as the lack of transparency. What I am concerned about are behaviors such as Chancellor Wise's that operate outside of the realm of accountability, transparency, and open communication.

I will argue that uncivil behavior is communicative behavior that shuts off spaces, closes debate, and does so in subversive ways.

Uncivil behavior is communicative inversion, communicating a message that precisely intends to achieve an outcome that is opposite from the standard interpretation of the message. Such forms of communicative behaviors are uncivil because they foreclose debate and conversation and do so by utilizing a language that appears polite, professional and invitational, while at the same time being opaque about the agendas, purposes, and intent of the actors. Backroom decisions among power brokers are already predetermined; backdoor channels and letters from powerful donors remain hidden while the excuse for the firing becomes one of incivility.

A manager trained with the enticements of an academic leadership ladder is then trained to read the message with a neutral tone, sounding open and dialogic even as one utters the verdict "Your services are no longer required." The paraphernalia of the pinstripe suit, the cuff link, the pearl necklace, and the hairdo, all work together to achieve this sophisticated image of civility, maintaining the opaqueness that must remain invisible and out of sight. Incivility is the absence of honesty in communicating the real reasons behind the decision to fire. Incivility is the opaqueness around the letter writing campaigns that were carried out by powerful donors. Incivility is the lack of transparency regarding serious conflicts of interest in the roles played by Chancellor Wise and the Board of Trustees, many of whom have stakes in corporations invested in Israel.

Such communicative inversions and erasures remind us everyday that violence is both symbolic and material. To the extent that the trope of civility is deployed to erase language that captures the material violence carried out by Israel on Gaza, civility itself becomes the instrument of violence. It forecloses opportunities for describing symbolically the material markers of violence, capturing the ugly ramifications of state-sponsored violence on the human body. The language of civility codes itself as the language of repression.

One might argue that the very nature of violence in imperial invasions and bombings is so utterly large in magnitude that no form of talk can adequately describe it or represent it. In the very act of representation, there will be slippage, what might be described as communicative loss. For the scholar interested in constructing the narrative of violence at sites of imperial invasions and large scale state sponsored civilian casualties, in lending solidarity to those that bear on their bodies the marks of violence, the extremities of affect in speech codes seek to engage with the possibilities of aligning representations with the materiality of violence. For a scholar of decolonization, to be authentic to one's academic work would also suggest an inner struggle to find the words to represent the violent erasures carried out by colonization.

The language of Facebook and Twitter in such instances is particularly powerful because the emerging speech codes on social media, breaking genre expectations and normative expectations of interaction, render possible opportunities for redefining speech codes. Images for instance that have otherwise been censored by traditional media find expression in social media, connecting us to the materiality of oppression. Movements of democratic change such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement find their resistive capacities in these very spaces of ambiguity, undefined speech codes, and negotiated boundaries. Hashtags can quickly offer the motivation to join a movement, to express one's views, and to act in some form of solidarity. In my own study of the role of social media in processes of social change, the meta-communicative struggles over communicative norms on emerging media themselves become sites of transformation.

When considering the social media conversations opened up by Professor Salaita, let's go back to what was apparently one of the most objectionable tweets. It stated: "At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?" Let's now put this tweet in the context of the materiality that the tweet perhaps sought to represent.

At the time when Prof. Salaita posted this tweet, children in Gaza were being killed in large numbers by the Israeli strikes. A consistent theme that reiterates in protests across the globe points to the large scale loss of civilian life, particularly lives of children in Gaza. Placing the tweet in the context of the material condition it seeks to depict once again draws our attention to the communicative limits of representation.

The power of the tweet, indeed powerfully framed in a narrative that seeks to hold Netanyahu accountable, remains limited when compared to the large scale violation of civility, dignity, and life brought about by the Israeli invasion. I read the powerful language of Professor Salaita's tweets as an exemplar of communicative loss, a meta-communicative struggle that seeks to find the right form of expression, interpretation, and meaning amid imperial invasion, the most uncivilized expression of human nature.

As a scholar who writes about decolonization processes, Professor Salaita offers his voice and body to a struggle of decolonization. In his voice, I hear the struggles with communicative loss. In his tweets, I witness forms of representation that seek to grapple with the very violence that is brought about by war and imperial aggression.

To me, Professor Salaita's voice is a voice of civility amid an uncivil crisis perpetrated through structures of incivility that see violence as weapons of occupation. Professor Salaita seeks to open up this space for conversation as did the activists in Egypt and Tunisia, and is silenced precisely because he seeks to open up this space and challenges the imperial narrative.

In a classic example of communicative inversion then, what is uncivil is the non-transparent process through which the Chancellor, Board of Trustees and certain sets of donors at UIUC seek to foreclose the discursive space. As an elucidation of communicative inversion, they use the very language of communicative openings and mutual respect to make impossible the openings for embodied critique.

Although they point to the language of incivility as an excuse, the notion of communicative inversion would suggest that there is something much more deep-seated going on here. The structures of power seek to erase dissent in spaces where it matters the most. Of course for these structures, participation in debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict in scholarly journals is just fine; academic journals are safe spaces. Because after all, these structures know well in their calculations that in the war of public opinions, journal articles are obscure.

As the Arab Spring suggests, and as US democracy promotion ideologues will be quick to point out, the social media, with their possibilities of opening up spaces of conversation, are the real threat. When Professors such as Professor Salaita take to social media, they find direct channels of communication and influence with everyday people, bypassing the silences that are reproduced by mainstream media. When he takes his work on decolonization seriously to lend the work to real struggles of decolonization, Professor Salaita becomes a threat to the power structures. As we witness in this case of firing Professor Salaita, the fight for academic freedom is in many ways a fight against the very incivilities that have come to constitute corporate driven, donor driven University structures where debate is limited by the acceptability coefficient created and circulated by the corporate masters.
“At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised - See more at:
“At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised - See more at:
tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” - See more at:
tweet: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza.” Or this one: “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.” - See more at:


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