There has been a lot of talk as of late about “civility.” Indeed there are academicians who are doing a thriving business conducting workshops with the full support of administration and its cheerleaders who equate the lack of civility to school yard bullying, mixing the proverbial apples and oranges.
However, the meaning of civility is much deeper; it involves much more than politeness. The intent of the campaign is to silence dissent. The frivolous finger wagging distracts from the important role of power in bullying and trivializes its viciousness and seriousness.
Proponents rationalize that politeness is necessary for collegial communication and to lay down the ground rules for disagreeing in a civil matter. According to them, civility is essential to finding common ground. This sounds great but it assumes that both sides want to listen to each other as equals and that there is the possibility of common ground. The truth be told, the hierarchical nature of academe makes this sort of communication impossible.
After listening to the dialogue on civility at California State University Northridge, I have come to the conclusion that there is not very much analysis or thought on the topic and that the narrative is being spun by administrators and partisans who do not want to deal with criticism. A major issue at CSUN is a lack of racial diversity on the faculty.
It is a crude effort at social control – an attempt to regulate behavior and feed the ambitions of those at the top. At its most basic level culture controls us; in turn popular opinion defines what is right and wrong. The present campaign on civility is part of an effort to impose conformity and silence dissent.
In order for civility to exist it must begin from the bottom. If not the university becomes a caste system with students subservient to professors, professors to the dean and up the line to the president. At each step, power is controlled by those at the higher level with students and professors, according to their category, on the bottom.
From my perspective, an analysis of the term civility has to be examined in context. Like racism and sexism civility depends on power. Moreover, we are supposed to be scholars and the current debate ignores tons of literature on racism and sexism. Bandied around by pseudo scholars it diminishes the moral authority and meaning of the word civility.
Recently the issue surfaced at the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies’ call for papers. The conference theme was “Exploring Civility within the Chicana & Chicano Studies Discipline.” The pushback came as a surprise to many members since these conferences are usually innocuous.
Sandra K. Soto, an Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona wrote an open letter to the leadership of NACCS in which she recounted her twenty-five year involvement and attacked the theme of “Exploring Civility” –saying the call made “clear that the theme is not only promoting civility, but that it is blaming human suffering, greed, union busting, and other forms of oppression on a general sense of incivility, rather than say…capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, genocide… or say—in this historical moment—that ‘disrespect for authority has decreased the ability of individuals to follow laws’ is to verge into the terrain of anti-Blackness.’”
Professor Soto went on to re-call the history of the lack of civility in NACCS and how the militant conduct of the Lesbian contingent forced changes and the formation of the Lesbian Caucus in the 1980s. If “we had been ‘well-behaved, cultured, refined, enlightened, polite, and developed’ (ser educado)—we probably wouldn’t even have had the audacity to be out lesbians much less angry Chicana dykes demanding of space. Thankfully we didn’t give into that ideology then. And I certainly don’t want to now.”
The tempest sent some members back to redrafting their papers to include the lack of civility of the U.S.’s quest for global domination and the privatization of public institutions here and in Latin America. More important critics criticized the call’s distortion of civility by defining it as “ser educado” “[that] in Spanish means being well-behaved, cultured, refined, enlightened, polite, and developed” – which has always been definition of gente de razón.
What concerned me was not the tempest, but that an organization that was founded on the burning ashes of the 1960s would resurrect this Porfirian notion. As scholars, members have the responsibility of putting definitions into context. Language underlies socialization and it is rooted in culture, and based on our learned experiences that form our social and cultural identity.
As Michel Foucault wrote, “Neither power nor knowledge nor any other reality is anything but a mere linguistic construct.” In order to define civility Chicana/o scholars must deconstruct the academy and its motives when using those words. Like the old colonial Mexican casta system civility fixes everyone in their place.
In academe everything is advisory to the president – who for all intents and purposes owns the plantation. The overseer is the provost; he and his/her staff run the plantation often using pan or palo, but more often through benevolence. On Mexican haciendas the overseer became compadre to the peones establishing a fictional relationship with them. In academe control is based on this pecking order of associates, deans and lackeys. The lowest rung is occupied by students who don’t have anyone to peck down on.
Like on the plantation the illusion exists that everyone is part of a family or team. Their limited power is based on how many they can peck down on. Students have few illusions whereas professors are called “doctor”. They can grieve but they lack the deep pockets of an institutional remedy.
Even if you want a simple audience with those above you, access is limited by the one on the top. Nevertheless, faculty is under the illusion that they are part of a governance process. Similarly student government is controlled by the administration; only about 5 percent of the students vote in student government elections. They routinely vote for university projects rubber stamping the administration’s wishes. The only hope of breaking this cycle is to be uncivil.
Wanting to maintain this control, administrators red-bait dissidents and shut them out. For over six months we have been trying to get our side of the UNAM argument in print only to be shut out of the student newspaper and faculty forums.
I have been in the Civil Rights Movement for some sixty years. The principle of civil disobedience is part of my vernacular. For me, it is the cornerstone of democracy. Many faculty members and students went to jail resisting civility and those controlling the institution. One of the lessons we learned was that the lack of communication produced frustration and forced dissidents to be uncivil. Our life experiences inform us that change cannot come about without vigorous dissent.
Like they say on the street “no justice no peace.” As long as there is injustice civil behavior will be impossible. Civility only occurs when those on top listen to those with less power. The hyperbole of the administration hides the fact that there is already a procedure in place to deal with abusive conduct. However, charging someone with unprofessional conduct would require the accusers to give the dissident due process instead of slandering or red-baiting them.
– by Dr. R. Acuña