The consistently great Michael Hiltzik pointed out a really important thing today, Free Speech, “Civility,” and How Universities Are Getting Them Mixed Up. The specific issue is that brouhaha about UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks’s remarks about the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, “We can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility.” Let me translate: free speech will only be allowed if it doesn’t upset anyone.
This is a big part of how the power elite keep their power. They would never stop anyone from expressing themselves, as long as they only talk about things that don’t upset the status quo. So if you want to wax poetic about motherhood, have at it! But if you want to criticize the Israeli attacks in Palestine, as Steven Salaita did, be prepared to lose your job offer — not because of what you said, of course, but because of how you said it. The University of Illinois would never have admitted to stifling unpopular opinions. And that’s the whole point of the “civility” complaint: it provides cover for doing what would not be considered socially acceptable.
A big part of being powerful is having the luxury to take the “high ground,” even as they use it to cudgel the weak. I was recently in an argument with a neighborhood kid about the Israel-Palestine conflict. I try not to take sides, but he was arguing that Israel was in the right because they abide by the rules of war and Hamas does not. I was shocked that an otherwise smart boy could be so dense. Hamas doesn’t fire rockets at random because that’s the best theoretical tactic; they do it because they see it as the best tactic available to them. They do not have a modern army like Israel and so aren’t able to fight a more “civilized” war.
So the argument he was making was simply that he supported Israel because they had all the power in the situation. And the argument that those who support the University of Illinois are making is the same. Those who have power and want to keep things as they are can take the high ground by claiming the mantel of civility. But the act itself is a reflection and use of that power. So to support calls for civility is to support the status quo.
Hiltzik summed up the issue well, “Insistence on ‘civility’ is a weapon, and it’s almost always wielded by those in power against those whose free speech needs protection.” What we have to decide as a civilization is whether we are going to have public discourse that simply reinforces the existing power structure or not. If we are then we should give up the pretense that we have, much less value, free speech. I don’t like listening to the ravings of Bill O’Reilly either. But it is part of the price I pay to protect my own speech.