Once again, the paternalistic emails coming from Howard Gillman’s office remind us to be civil, instructing us on how to have discussions without infringing on free speech. The most recent email, “Respecting the Lines of Civility,” addresses an action against the Israeli Occupation Forces soldiers at a Students Supporting Israel film screening last week, raising important questions about safety and civility. Where are the “lines” of civility and free speech? Who determines when they are crossed?
We must scrutinize the ideologies of civility if we begin with the understanding that dominant ideology is tied to the interests of the ruling class.
“Civility” as an ideology is a pillar of white supremacist imperialism. Civilizing missions are historically linked to the implementation of ideology unto those who are seen as savage or uncivil to legitimize violence against them in the name of progress and their betterment. Civilizing missions (as the one Gillman is currently on) begin with the position that there are those who are already being uncivil. These uncivil Others are presented as a threat to the structure of the university.
The labeling of people as “uncivil” is an easy way to strip them of their rights and legitimize force against them, to validate their punishment.
When our administration labels speech as uncivil, it does not have to listen to that speech, engage it, nor protect it, and it does not allow the rest of the students to do so. It does not even recognize the language—it is read as barbaric. The critique is rendered illegible, and in its illegibility lies its offensiveness. When the ruling class labels something “uncivil,” they don’t recognize it as speech, and therefore, they are able to censor or punish it. As a label, “civil” organizes bodies and aligns them with or against the institution.
Ideologies of “civility” sacrifice radical forms of speech, including provocations and interruptions. The ensuing, censored speech is confined to predetermined yet ever-shifting and strategically undefined limits. When speech, actions, gestures and views are labeled “unconventional and even outrageous,” when the “appropriateness” of actions are questioned and dismissed by the university, the discussion is shut off. Those who deliver the critique become “indefensible,” and are consequently censored.
Disruption is a critique which is incomprehensible to the university because it would require an understanding of discourse beyond affectless rationality. Impassioned speech is read as uncivil because the tone of the critique is interpreted as threatening, and must be stopped in the name of “safety.” Any sign of emotion usually guarantees that a critique will be isolated as corporal affect, “[passionate] disagreement,” a personal reaction indicative of the individual’s mental and emotional stability rather than a challenge to ideology. Civility asks that we maintain “respectful” tones in the name of logic and rationality even in moments that elicit and necessitate strong emotional responses.
However, emotion is not always unrecognized by the university. When (some) people “[fear] for their safety,” police are called to protect them.
Rhetoric of safety and protection functions interestingly here — some deserve to be protected, some do not. Whose safety matters? Perhaps the validation of emotion is tied to which bodies the university seeks to protect — which bodies it sees as valuable.
Civility reveals itself to be wholly irrational — the only rational response to calls for civility may be to become willfully uncivil. To act out. To disrupt and disorient. To embody critique and “free speech” through acts of willfulness and rebellion. We may begin toward an understanding of incivility and willfulness as possible ways of countering hegemonic ideologies of civility and respectability. We may decide to be difficult. Contumacious. Pettish even.
We must continue to challenge limits. We must cross the lines of civility, not respect them. Move through them, climb over them. Dig tunnels beneath them, cross over only to return and destroy them. Boundaries must be breached. Walls must fall. Barriers and checkpoints must fall. Fences and borders must fall. Prisons, detention centers, binaries — these, too, must fall. And we should always remain vigilant against civility.
Miguel Olvera is a third-year comparative literature major. He can be reached at email@example.com.