On Friday, July 22nd, an article in Inside Higher Ed highlighted some of the responses from campus administrators “after a tense summer nationally.” While perhaps some of these responses held nuance and complexity, the theme the article focused on was administrators’ “call for a peaceful start to the academic year.” Maybe as a result of attending one too many* anti-war protests, whenever I hear the word ‘peace’ I have a tendency to ask, but what about justice?
These calls come at a time when a survey referenced in the article shows that an increasing number of students expect to participate in protests on campus, and that this interest level is at an all-time high (at least in the 50 years that the survey has existed). These numbers, the campus protests of the last academic year, and a summer embroiled in several high-profile police murders (especially of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile), acquittals in Freddie Gray’s murder, the Pulse nightclub shooting, and presidential campaigns full of neoliberal and fascist rhetoric [sidenote: anyone else slightly creeped out and confused by the video montage of celebrities singing “Our Fight Song” at the DNC, or was that just me?], has our higher education leaders concerned about more protests.
I pause to consider the privilege inherent in one’s greater concern being protests against injustice, rather than the enactments of injustice on one’s self. Of course, there are several administrators across the country that are concerned with the latter – at least as well – but I suspect most are people who belong to one or more targeted communities themselves. Also probably says a lot about who STILL makes up the vast majority of university administration (and I’m specifically talking about central administration here, the folks that hold institutional decision making power, including boards).
Regardless of whether one is more or solely worried about public displays of dissatisfaction of the status quo, I want to problematize some of these notions of unity and calm and civility. I don’t have that much to say about unity itself, rather some questions that popped in my head. What are folks being called to unite around? Is it the institution’s mission, each other, a particular community/ies, something greater? When unity is called for after student activism around racial justice for example, does that not place the onus of division on student activism rather than the racial injustice it highlights? Who does unity benefit? Which voices does unity silence and which voices does it amplify? What about solidarity instead?
I got the sense that calm and peace and civility were being used fairly interchangeably in these calls, making it hard to figure out exactly what they are supposed to evoke. In combination and in relation to each other they evoked ‘quiet’ and ‘silence’ for me. I can hear a paternalistic shushing overhead, maybe even a pat on the head for ‘good behavior.’ During a conversation on LGBTQ+Latinx Issues in Student Affairs, Julio R. Oyola (Assistant Director of LGBT Services at Massachusetts Institute of Technology) reminded us that returning or coming to campus for the first time in the fall might just be the first - or one of the first - opportunities for some queer and trans people of color, particularly in this instance queer and trans Latinx folks, to openly mourn or express rage after the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub that killed 49 predominantly Latinx individuals. Some might still be grieving losing a loved one or holding guilt for being alive. Will we be asking these students and colleagues to stay calm, to be quiet? Are their emotions just too uncomfortable for us to hold? And I imagine there are far more who are willing to provide grace to those affected by the Pulse shooting (especially considering how whitewashed and lacking of immigrant perspective the dominant media narrative has been) than to Black students and colleagues crying out for their lives to matter to the rest of us. Anti-blackness isn’t comfortable either though.
The calls for civility instinctively transported me to Dr. Steven Salaita’s (2015a) rejections of civility. With little, if any, explanation of what civility means to those who use it, we are all assumed to just “know civility when we see it” (Scott, 2015, par. 9 ). Salaita (2015a) explains that civility and common sense are racist and colonial mechanisms that people in power utilize to subdue and elicit consent from those they hold power over. Chastised as anti-Semitic and terminated over tweets decrying the killing of thousands of innocent Palestinians, Salaita (2015b) wrote,
Similarly in vocal rejection to signing a unity statement put out by Ithaca College and in response to its lack of context and speficity, Zack Ford, an Ithaca College alum and LGBT editor at Think Progress , had this to say in a Facebook post:
…it reeks of an "all lives matter" sentiment that erases the discrimination many people experience, both on-campus and elsewhere. It sugarcoats and whitewashes the real problems the community is trying to solve, cheapening the valid concerns that students, faculty, staff, and alumni have been raising for the past year.
Both historically and contemporarily, “certain bodies are constructed to simply be, a priori, uncivil” (Espiritu, Puar, & Salaita, 2015, p. 64), and thus the actions and speech of people of color, immigrants, queer and trans people, and especially those who criss-cross these identities are more likely to be considered uncivil. So when we continue to bring up civility as the central issue here, we are in fact responsible for reproducing the idea that marginalized people are “threatening, dangerous, and uncivil” (Espiritu et al., 2015, p. 65). And before anyone goes so far as to equate rejecting calls of civility and unity as calls for utter chaos and never-ending conflict, allow me to bring in a quote from Joan W. Scott’s (2015) article in The Nation:
And it is preferable to treat others with respect. But criticism—even angry criticism—is not necessarily a sign of disrespect. To point out that the meanings of words are not self-evident and that they can mask as much as they reveal is to respect language and thought. The real questions are: Who is calling for civility, and to what ends? What are the effects of policing classrooms and political forums in the name of civility? What has been the history of the invocation of that word?
I implore you to read Scott’s article in full as it provides an important historical analysis of how civility “establishes relations of power whenever it is invoked” considering that it is those IN positions of power that get to determine what the word means and what happens to those that do not match it. The word has a deep colonial history, a history that institutions of education have always been propagating, lest we forget the efforts to “civilize” the Indigenous people of this land by kidnapping and separating children from their communities and indoctrinating them through White Christian schooling and decorum, and its continued impact on Indigenous peoples today. The article also shares many examples of faculty repression in the name of civility, such as Dr. Angela Davis’ dismissal from UCLA in 1970 because of her political activism. Both Davis and Salaita were similarly applauded by their colleagues and students as educators who created environments of learning with all the room for dissent, rigorous discussion, and disagreement. Yet they were both punished by administrators and others who never bothered to experience them as teachers, but readily concluded that their activism and political speech precluded them from being responsible scholars and educators.
This is all of course happening in the context of an increasingly corporatized university, where students are customers and education is a product to be marketed and sold (Chatterjee & Maira, 2014; Espiritu et al., 2015; Giroux, 2015; Scott, 2015), but don’t get me started on that thread or else we’ll be here all day! Suffice to say, that civility is a “code word” (Espiritu et al., 2015) or a “watch word” (Scott, 2015) that administrators employ in furthering neoliberalism in higher education (Giroux, 2015).
What I’ve come to understand collectively from reading between the lines (and often I don't even have to dig that deep) in these calls is that:
Rather than pre-emptive calls for civility and peace, what about pro-active** action to address the concerns that students have been naming and will continue to name in the years ahead? I’d love to see an institution putting itself through an internal audit, and creating immediate, short, and long term plans on how they will structurally undo its oppressive ways of being and reconstruct a liberatory entity. At bare minimum, I hope these administrators are putting half as much effort into figuring out how the university is going to respond to threats of and actual violence against students of color as they are into seemingly-innocuous letters telling them to be “civil” in response to experiencing racism. And considering how widespread these threats and acts were this past year, there is no reason to not know that they will occur when the academic year resumes. All because some students of color are refusing to apologize for their existence or their views.
The reality is that what has happened thus far this summer is not an aberration, but all too common, and thus will happen again, and again, in a multitude of variations. And when it does, they SHOULD be condemned, protests SHOULD follow, the status quo SHOULD be rejected. Flint still doesn’t have clean water. Homan Square is still fully functioning. Institutions are still investing in the prison industrial complex and apartheid. Tenure is still under attack. Students are still burdened by debt. Pro-Trump rallies and supporters still incite violence and racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim rhetoric. So protests (as one of several ways of engaging in movement work) should still continue.
In a fall that will have many, if not all institutions putting on events and programming encouraging participating in the presidential election in November as one’s civic duty (note: undocumented and international students can’t participate, BTdubs), there is a clear distinction made between voting and movement work. One is celebrated, encouraged, considered the way to make your voice heard, while the other is dismissed, criticized, considered troublesome.
But being troubling and troublesome is kind of the point. Our lives need disrupting… a disruption from the continued violations of our humanities, our very beings... and if you've made it down this far and a disruption in your life is unwelcome, then maybe that's a call for you to examine what you're comfortable with and understand where your comfort is built on others' violations. If we say we’re not invested in maintaining the status quo, then we must be prepared to cultivate some trouble. After all, as the popular rally cry goes, “no justice, no peace!”
* The phrase “one too many” is in reference to the never-ending need for anti-war protests because of “one too many” wars, and not to mean that I probably should have gone to less of them. In fact, I should have probably gone to far more of them.
** Using the phrase “pro-active” pretty loosely here, since these problems are not new or unknown.
References of material not directly linked in the post:
Chatterjee, P. & Maira, S. (Eds.) (2014). The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Espiritu, E. L., Puar, J. K., & Salaita, S. (2015). Civility, academic freedom, and the project of decolonization: A conversation with Steven Salaita. Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 24(1), 63-88.
Giroux, H. A. (2015). Democracy in crisis, the specter of authoritarianism, and the future of higher education. Journal of Critical Scholarship on Higher Education and Student Affairs, 1(1), 101-113.
Salaita, S. (2015a). Uncivil rites: Palestine and the limits of academic freedom. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books.
Salaita, S. (2015b, October 5). Why I was fired. The Chronicle Review. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/Why-I-Was-Fired/233640.
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