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Professors: Civility ‘upholds white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist power’

Profs say a college chancellor’s opposition to assault is ‘myopic and troubling’

Two professors authored a recent essay arguing that calls for civility from college instructors are a “deflection tactic” designed to force people to “fall back in line with the normalized immiseration induced by the wealthy few.”

Johnny Williams and David Embrick, professors at Trinity College and the University of Connecticut, respectively, argue in an article at Inside Higher Ed that much of the demands for civil behavior from faculty are actually calls for “a civility that upholds white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist power.”

The calls for civility, many of them from college administrators, “are usually directed at professors interrogating oppression in a manner displeasing to college and university administrations,” Embrick and Williams write.

“University presidents or chancellors accuse these faculty members of violating some unwritten code of ‘civility,’ hence in need of disciplining. Yet this action constitutes a violation and assault upon professors’ academic freedom and our right to freedom of speech,” the two claim.

The instructors argue that one professor’s call for assaulting senators in public places is “democracy in action,” and that opposition to such behavior is “myopic and troubling:”

This obsession with a civility that upholds white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalist power was on display when the chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Jeffrey Vitter, released a statement condemning a tweet made by sociology professor James M. Thomas. Thomas was responding to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who tweeted that people should not yell at senators, shout at people in restaurants or “rage about past votes.” Thomas maintained he did not think many people were mad “about past votes.” Writing in a senator’s voice, he tweeted, “Yes, I plan to take away your healthcare, but that’s no reason to interrupt me while I eat my meal at this restaurant you probably can’t afford …” In a subsequent tweet, Thomas wrote, “Don’t just interrupt a senator’s meal, y’all. Put your whole damn fingers in their salads.”

The latter tweet was too much for the University of Mississippi’s genteel etiquette, so Vitter penned this problematic response: the faculty member’s post “did not reflect the values articulated by the university, such as respect for the dignity of each individual and civility and fairness.” Vitter continued, “While I passionately support free speech, I condemn statements that encourage acts of aggression.”

Clearly, Vitter’s idea of what constitutes “uncivil” behavior and “aggression” is, among others things, myopic and troubling. Challenging senators’ decisions that adversely affect the lives of everyday people is not “uncivil” or “aggression.” It is democracy in action. Vitter’s employed the terms “civility” and “aggression” to subvert Thomas’s legitimate call to pressure senators to create a more humane and ethical country. Vitter’s “civility’ is not about enforcing a universal moral code but rather about controlling dissenting voices that value human life over wealth extraction. Though Vitter’s response to Thomas’s tweets was extremely disconcerting, many people criticized it for not going far enough. They desired concrete disciplinary action strong enough to make professors think long and hard about publicly challenging oppressors and their systems of oppression.

“Evoking the term “civility” is a deflection tactic deployed to pressure professors — particularly those who are members of oppressed groups — into having calm discussions with people who have breached the bounds of civility by trying to control dissent and challenges to the status quo,” the authors write, concluding: “[W]e should all be weary and concerned about so-called calls for civility and recognize them for what they are: attempts to silence the messenger.”

Johnny Williams generated controversy last year when he publicly advocated letting injured white people die. Williams was suspended from Trinity College over the remarks but was subsequently reinstated.

Read the whole essay here.

MORE: Academia’s newest target: ‘White-informed civility’

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