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The new thought police and the demand for “civility”

Joan W. Scott in The Nation:

“Civility” has become a watch word for academic administrators. Earlier this year, Inside Higher Ed released a survey of college and university chief academic officers, which found that “a majority of provosts are concerned about declining faculty civility in American higher education.” Most of these provosts also “believe that civility is a legitimate criterion in hiring and evaluating faculty members,” and most think that faculty incivility is directed primarily at administrators. The survey brought into the open what has perhaps long been an unarticulated requirement for promotion and tenure: a certain kind of deference to those in power.

But what exactly is civility — and is it a prerequisite for a vibrant intellectual climate? As it turns out, the definitions on offer are porous and vague. University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson, who supported the decision not to hire Salaita, sees it as a “reluctance to indulge in mutual hatred,” thereby placing a limit on violence and campus warfare. Others stress courteous and respectful behavior and its concomitants: comfort, safety, and security. The University of Missouri’s “Show Me Respect” project includes a “toolbox” that offers 20 ways to achieve civility (including the reminder to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). At the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, a 2011 conference offered these words of wisdom: “Academic freedom and free speech require open, safe, civil and collegial campus environments.” And a statement from a University of Maryland discussion paper on civility in 2013 defines it “simply as ‘niceness to others.’… Additionally, the definition may be used broadly to spur discussions on how ‘nice guys and gals finish first’ and how cordiality and kindness can be tracked across campus to ensure faculty, staff, and students are indeed playing nice.”

The attempts to secure the comfort and safety of students — now recognized for their economic value as paying clients who need to be satisfied — are subjugating language and thinking to their own ends. These dictates seem to know no limits and are evident in other policies, such as the call for “trigger warnings” in college classrooms. Professors are being asked by the representatives of some students or groups — and by the anxious deans who rush to satisfy their complaints — to avoid assigning material that might provoke flashbacks or even attention to discomforting violence. The demand for trigger warnings has the same intent as the emphasis on comfort and civility in the Salaita affair and the statement to the UC Berkeley community by Dirks: to stifle thought on the part of both teachers and students who might otherwise express opinions that could make others “uncomfortable.”

All of these efforts presume a certain benign self-evidence for the use of the term “civility.” As the University of Maryland statement puts it, “niceness” is “easily understood by all parties”: We know civility when we see it. Left aside in these invocations are not only interpretive differences among individuals and groups (one man’s or woman’s presumed civility may strike another as uncivil), but also the history of the term. Although, as with any word, the meanings of “civility” have changed, the concept still carries traces of its earlier use. I’d argue further that although the contexts and specific applications have varied over time, the notion of civility consistently establishes relations of power whenever it is invoked. Moreover, it is always the powerful who determine its meaning — one that, whatever its specific content, demeans and delegitimizes those who do not meet its test.

MORE: “The New Thought Police

Gary Oldman: “Our world has gone to hell”

Gary_Oldman

Maybe you’ve heard about ongoing flap over actor Gary Oldman’s recent interview for Playboy, in which he slams political correctness and speaks in defense of Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin regarding their famous public takedowns for expressing anti-semitic sentiments (in Gibson’s case) and using anti-gay slurs (in Baldwin’s case). Or rather, he speaks against what he perceives as the hypocrisy of those who have condemned them. This has resulted in a public relations crisis for Oldman that is still unfolding, and that has involved a demand for an apology from the Anti-Defamation League, Oldman’s issuance of the requested apology in a form that some described as groveling and over-the-top, and the ADL’s rejection of the apology as insufficient. Oldman has also gone on Jimmy Kimmel’s show to apologize yet again.

The entire Playboy interview is available for free reading (at least currently), and without commenting on the controversy I wanted to highlight an aspect of it that I find to be quite fascinating: Oldman’s utterly dire diagnosis of, and prognosis for, the state and soul of American culture. Aspects of this are scattered throughout the interview, and they enfold the part that got him in trouble. But here is perhaps the central portion, which occurs when the interviewer, having just listened to Oldman’s description of the darkly post-apocalyptic future that’s depicted by his new movie, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, asks about his real-world thoughts on the future:

PLAYBOY: What’s your view of the future? Are you optimistic about where society is heading?

OLDMAN: [Pauses] You’re asking Gary?

PLAYBOY: Yes.

OLDMAN: I think we’re up shit creek without a paddle or a compass.

PLAYBOY: How so?

OLDMAN: Culturally, politically, everywhere you look. I look at the world, I look at our leadership and I look at every aspect of our culture and wonder what will make it better. I have no idea. Any night of the week you only need to turn on one of these news channels and watch for half an hour. Read the newspaper. Go online. Our world has gone to hell. [Oldman refers briefly to the prevalence of things like frivolous lawsuits and “helicopter parents” who raise catastrophically narcissistic children.] These are just tiny examples, grains of sand in a vast desert of what’s fucked-up in our world right now.

He goes on to talk intermittently and in some detail about, among other topics, the ridiculous ineffectiveness of America’s political leadership and what he views as the cesspool of heavily hyped triviality and low quality that makes up current mass entertainment. Great lines include his observation that “Reality TV to me is the museum of social decay.”

Personally, I think the following analysis in a blog post at The Economist (titled, winningly, “What’s wrong with Gary Oldman?“) hits the nail on the head regarding the real significance of the whole matter:

What’s being lost in the outrage, however, is perhaps more significant. It is plain from the very outset of his interview that Mr Oldman’s ill-considered remarks are fuelled by a potent, all-encompassing frustration — a near-despair over America’s cultural and political institutions. He sees a world rotten with corruption, hypocrisy and vanity, one that celebrates its pathologies rather than face up to them. Political correctness, for Mr Oldman, is merely a symptom of the disease. So he drops an f-bomb on the Pope (“Oh, fuck the pope! [laughs and puts head in hands] So this interview has gone very badly”), he doubts that stable love and lasting marriage can survive modern life, and he cries out for “real leadership,” though “it’s nowhere in sight.”

Most important of all, Mr Oldman puts no faith in either of America’s prevailing ideological camps, whose comprehensive doctrines are the last refuge for many angry and fearful folk. “I’m probably a libertarian,” he guesses, “if I had to put myself in any category. But you don’t come out and talk about these things, for obvious reasons.”

There’s more to that caveat than a guilty conscience. What’s truly scandalous about Mr Oldman’s worldview is his unflinching claim that the American social order is built on an interconnected system of frauds. This idea is ultimately too big of a challenge for most people to process, much less accept. And Mr Oldman’s diatribe did not exactly suggest a way forward. But his views reflect the gut instinct of a growing number of independent voters, as well as the Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren wings of the Republican and Democratic parties. Rather than a fox in the cultural henhouse, perhaps Mr Oldman can be seen as a canary in the coal mine.

Photo of Gary Oldman by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Gary Oldman) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons