Salaita, the Free Speech Movement, and the Occupation of "Civility"

Depending on which metaphor one prefers, the American left’s obsession with identity politics has become either a dead-end or an ironic u-turn. I have written about this issue before, in the context of contemporary conservatives stealing the liberal political playbook and deploying the imagery of oppression in the context of Christians who face “discrimination” in an allegedly secularist society. There’s now another manifestation to contemplate, made clear in the Salaita affair and a discussion of “civility" in its wake.

A summary of events so far looks something like this:

1. Prospective faculty member at U Illinois gets “unhired” because of some critical comments made on social media.
2. University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise makes a public statement defending her decision on that unhiring, focusing especially on the importance and priority of “civility.”
3. University of California Chancellor Nicholas Dirks turns the discussion of civility in an unexpected direction, claiming to find relevant lessons about civil discourse in the Free Speech Movement.

The sheer fact of academic managers turning to student activists as models of decorum should indicate that we’re on new and uncertain terrain. The faculty concern is that what administrators (and faculty aspirants) are already defending as an innocuous and even “necessary” evaluative tool in hiring and tenure will in practice chill speech. Reflection on real-world cases suggests, moreover, that “civility” will become weaponized and deployed to eliminate faculty members with eccentric and unpopular views. Unpopular in what sense, you might ask? Unpopular to university donors, trustees, vocal outside critics, and even some students.

The last point is especially important. Chancellor Wise puts her defense of Salaita’s unhiring this way:

We have a particular duty to our students to ensure that they live in a community of scholarship that challenges their assumptions about the world but that also respects their rights as individuals.

That sounds innocent enough. From her perspective, university administrators are stepping into a fraught process and intervening in the name of the protection of student rights. But how should we parse those rights? What does it mean to have “individual rights” in this context, and in what sense are they endangered by Salaita’s tweets?

As Scott Jaschik points out here, email records indicate that Chancellor Wise was actively lobbied before her decision. Seventy people wrote to her, and thematic commonalities in those emails suggest an orchestrated letter-writing campaign. Quoting directly from Jaschik’s article, here is what some of them said:

"If I happen to register for Mr. Salaita's course, how could I respectfully engage in conversation and learn material?" asked one email. Another said: "As a Jew, I do not feel comfortable knowing that the University of Illinois allows and supports this sort of behavior. I am currently an incoming senior, and while this is not the first time I have felt anti-Semitism at the University of Illinois, this is by far the most extreme and hurtful case."

One “multiple 6 figure donor to Illinois” also threatened to end his support because, as he put it, “we vehemently disagree with the approach this individual espouses.” As Jaschik is careful to point out, and as I want to reiterate here, there’s no evidence that these views directly influenced Wise’s decision. If we place her discussion of the “right to respect” next to the emails, however, some inferences can be drawn that will surely have an impact on other cases moving forward. The implication is that the pursuit of wisdom is disruptive, that certain views when expressed can have powerfully negative psychological effects and even induce trauma. Students need protection from that trauma, and administrative authority represents the intervening force that must reset the balance and restore the harmony of peace and pluralism.

One can look at the liberal language of “mutual respect” and see cynical manipulation at work. This isn’t surprising: something similar happened in Berkeley in 1964 as well. That Fall, administrators censored student activities aimed at “off-campus issues” like labor and civil rights; they prevented students from setting up tables for the purpose of distributing literature. Student activists looked at this intervention and saw it for what it was: a blatant attempt to control discourse in the name of silent but universally “shared assumptions.” The reality is that paternalistic authority will always speak in the name of such shared assumptions, will always demand that “we don’t need to talk about ____, because we already agree on it, and besides, discussion is too painful.” It will always speak in the name of the delicate and the vulnerable, will seek to protect their interests without discussion or consultation. I would suggest that we can see the language of “mutual respect” becoming the “shared assumption” that we allegedly all agree upon, and which demarcates acceptable from unacceptable discourse. Such language may have its origins in liberal multiculturalism, but it has become transposed into a different key and inserted into a new gatekeeping function, a new administrative power in deciding who gets to stay on campus and who needs to be ejected. The issues may be different – “off-campus issues” in ’64, “mutual respect and civility” in 2014 – but the danger of paternalism is the same.

Fifty years ago, we witnessed a rebellion in the best sense of the term. If the occupation of civility is to be resisted, a comparable movement is necessary. Students – not faculty – need to step up as Mario Savio and others did, and reclaim the danger of discourse, accept it as part of the price of adulthood and even more importantly as part of democracy. This is the real lesson of the FSM.

Robert Geroux is a political theorist.

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