Commentary

Being Civil Doesn’t Have to Mean Remaining Silent

October 08, 2015

Well over a year since the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign withdrew its job offer to Steven Salaita, citing intemperate tweets and statements he made about the 2014 Gaza war, the decision continues to reverberate. In early August, a federal judge refused to dismiss Salaita’s lawsuit against the university. Hours later, Chancellor Phyllis Wise resigned her post. This month Salaita released his book on the controversy. Legal action continues to rumble on.

The Salaita matter is, of course, only one of a stream of episodes that raise fundamental questions about academic freedom, the responsibilities of academics, and the nature of civility. This year the recently appointed Boston University academic Saida Grundy attracted a storm of criticism for what some saw as racially charged and "anti-white" tweets. (The university continued with the appointment.) Attempts by the regents of the University of California to institute rules against campus "intolerance" in the Israel/Palestine debates have prompted concern that they may stifle academic debate.

Too frequently, people have debated these questions in ways that actually obscure what is really important: the intellectual and political costs of uncivil discourse. We need to find ways of keeping conflict at an endurable level while still enabling individual self-expression and political practice.

Civility may seem merely a matter of decorum and "niceness." But its etymological roots are a clue to its profound implications. Civility connotes the classical Greek and Roman city and the body of citizens (civitas) who required a sense of "virtue" to ensure that citizenship and government could function. How do we live together amid diversity and competing interests? Civility is, as the sociologist Richard Sennett has argued, a "craft" that must be worked on, one in which "you keep silent about things you know clearly but which you should not and do not say." Civil communication greases the wheels of cooperation that society requires to function.

In practice, of course, it is almost impossible to disentangle civility from cultural norms. To demonstrate one’s civility has often meant demonstrating and justifying one’s place within a hierarchy. For this reason, Steven Salaita and others have rejected calls for civility as masked efforts to maintain the status quo and regulate minority speech.

But even if you believe that Salaita’s job offer should not have been withdrawn, it doesn’t mean there is no issue. Look again at some of his tweets from the summer of 2014:

"If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being."

"At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?"

"You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the [expletive] West Bank settlers would go missing."

These tweets are blunt, direct and clearly stem from hurt, outrage, and a burning political commitment. These are things that everyone is entitled to, academics included. Further, Salaita’s tweets were made in a context in which both pro- and anti-Israel tweeters frequently resort to abusive language.

But such language makes any kind of dialogue with or empathy for those who disagree very difficult to achieve. It makes the scholarly effort to understand the other even harder. And aren’t academics in the "understanding the other" business?

Almost everyone believes that rules of civility should apply somewhere, even if only with friends and family. The debate is about where.

The idea that the public sphere should be a civility-free zone is a depressing one. A civil voice is a voice that has at least a chance of being heard and that can persuade. An uncivil voice has no such chance.

So a better discourse about civility is an appeal to self-interest. If there can be any definition of civility, it should be: maintaining the possibility of communicating with people who do not already agree with you. Not everyone will be open to persuasion; those with the hardest-line positions may not listen no matter how measured the efforts to change their minds. But there is still a chance with the undecided, to those in the silent hinterland between activist camps.

A better discourse would not render those who resort to uncivil language as irredeemably bigoted and beyond the civilized pale. It would start from a place of empathy.

Conflicts about race and Israel/Palestine are at the sharp end of debates over civility on campus. In the wider public sphere, other conflicts — over abortion, animal rights, climate change — are also intense and attract enormous emotional energy. With the vast amount of information that circulates today about even the most peripheral issues, it can be intolerable to witness what one sees as oppression and suffering.

It is not incidental that the Salaita case, the Saida Grundy incident, and other controversies over civility started on social media. In our closely connected, media-suffused world, the sources of this pain are not "out there"; they show up taunting us insistently. It is nearly impossible not to give as good as we get.

But understanding why academics get caught up in the abusive maelstrom doesn’t mean we shouldn’t mourn the degradation it inflicts on scholarly life. There is something remarkably sad in witnessing the ways in which even academic giants compromise themselves. For example, can we continue to appreciate The Selfish Gene knowing what we know now of Richard Dawkins, whose reputation has taken a beating from his tendency to write crude and abusive tweets?

Anger can certainly be a good motivator for politically engaged scholarship, but recognizing the inevitability of anger does not obviate the need to work for civility. A renewed and better standard of civility should be a collective kind of journey, on which we recognize that the modern world has exposed some of our deepest frailties.

The Salaita case and others are teachable moments, opportunities to begin a process of thinking through how we might be better communicate in a world in which the temptations to shut down communication are stronger than ever.

So rather than withdraw Salaita’s job offer or ignore his inflammatory statements, Illinois should have explored a third option: to use the appointment as a starting point for a process of civility-building and conflict resolution both within the university and in the public sphere. It was an opportunity for reflection for all parties in the dispute, based on an acknowledgment of mutual fallibility.

Of course, conflict resolution is difficult in the face of intense public interest. Perhaps the starting point could have been a collective statement by Salaita, the university, and other interested parties calling for a temporary period of quiet so that the case could be discussed, away from the media spotlight. Would that have worked? Maybe partially, maybe not at all. But we’re going to have to find a way to create such temporary "safe" spaces if conflict resolution over any issue is going to stand a chance.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a sociologist based in London. His latest book is Uncivil War: The Israel Conflict in the Jewish Community.