The civility police and censoring protest against uncivil violence

This past summer, the months of July and August in 2014, witnessed gruesome attacks carried out by Israel on Gaza. As the social media reverberated with images and protests against these ghastly and uncivil acts of violence carried out by a powerful nation state with its imperial backing, civility on social media emerged as the metric of conversation, operating strategically to silence dissent.

As I have blogged in earlier posts, Professor Steven Salaita, who had secured an appointment at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, was de-hired from his job apparently because he had violated some unspoken civility code. In speaking about the decision to de-hire Professor Salaita, Chancellor Phyllis Wise of the UIUC cited personnel reasons while ironically parroting her well-practiced speech on her commitment to diversity, multiculturalism, safe spaces on university campuses, and academic freedom.

Later in the summer and through the early Fall, several University leaders across the US came up with civility codes on their individual campuses. It became apparent that civility was the new rage on academic campuses, a new strategy in the hands of the conversation police to determine the possibilities of discursive enactment and to erase multiple other possibilities. The language, tone, and content of discourse needed to be policed as Israel dealt with hits to its carefully crafted, strategically managed public relations image. And University leaders were all too quick to come to the rescue of the power machinery, hypocritically paying lip service to academic freedom and simultaneously, developing codes of conduct for academic participation on social media.

In essence, civility emerged as the codeword for silencing dissent. It appeared as the framework through which the dominant structure of Universities, powerful politicians, lobbyists, and public relations practitioners could continue perpetuating communicative violence and injustice amid the large scale material violence, and at the same time, limit the possibilities of conversation, critique, and democratic participation. Any conversation could be marked as uncivil, and therefore, outside the realm of acceptable speech.

To speak of Israeli imperialism would be uncivil.

To speak of the violence perpetrated by Israel in strong language that sought to capture the gravity of that violence would be marked off as uncivil. To compare Israeli oppression with fascist apartheid would be considered uncivil. The label of "anti-semitism" gets called upon as an easy heuristic to silence critique.

Once again, now in November 2014, in the face of the well-performed and practiced verdict on the Darren Wilson shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, US, the civility police reappears to outline the guidelines for acceptable speech. The code of incivility serves as the marker for determining the extent to which we can or can not talk about the politics of race and racial injustice that constitutes the fundamental fabric of American society.

To talk about the Whiteness that makes up US society would be uncivil. To talk about the impossibility of dialogue would be uncivil. To talk about the racist make-up of US society and many other dominant societies built on the ideology of Whiteness would be uncivil. In an inversion of logic then, any conversation on the racist logic of the US social system would be marked as racist and therefore, uncivil speech.

Civility and its sister trope of multiculturalism works well to silence dissent and to silence opportunities for drawing attention to the fundamentally uncivil structures of racist societies that reproduce unjust, unequal, and oppressive juridical systems. In this backdrop, to ask for social justice is to perform with incivility. To choose language that does not fit into the prescribed White codes of the dominant structure to express ones critique of the structure is uncivil. To discus the shooting of Michael Brown in the language of race is to be uncivil.

Civility is the new code for silencing diverse thoughts, especially thoughts that are critical of the status quo.

Universities as sites of knowledge production are especially under threat as the language and codes of civility are imposed on University faculty in constraining the possibilities of discourse. Appeal to heuristics and least common denominators are made to identify the "most dangerous professors" on university campuses across the globe. Universities as sites of knowledge production are increasingly seen as threats by the status quo that would perpetuate its version of truth, manufactured by PR agencies and lobbying firms and parroted by sold out university managers.

To protect spaces for open debate and dialogue, the codes of civility must be actively and consistently resisted. Academic work needs to continually interrogate the heuristics of multiculturalism, safe spaces, and dialogue that are often invoked to silence difference. What does it mean to participate in civil speech? What are the codes? What are the linguistic rules?

Moreover, attention needs to be turned more systematically to the fundamentally uncivil dominant structures that misuse the language of diversity and culture to erase culture opportunities for participation. In the neoliberal University, multiculturalism has too often been co-opted as the buzzword for protecting the status quo. We must interrogate the very vision of multi-cultural spaces that are offered to us by dominant structures as visions for organizing universities. To the extent that multi-culturalism has itself become a tool for the dominant structures to silence diverse voices from the margins, new vocabularies and normative ideas need to be imagined.


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