Sunday, April 06, 2008

Replay: In Praise of Incivility

Let’s face facts. Most law faculties are clubs. Once you’re in, it’s for life and as a tenured colleague on my faculty recently told an untenured colleague, “it’s not enough to be colleagues, you really need to at least act like you are a friend.” (Civility-speak for "kiss butt kid or you are out of here.")

Appeals to civility are critical as means of perpetuating the club and heading off a change. Civility standards are, after all, invariably “drafted” to protect the positions and status of those in power.

In the prissy world of law professors-- the world of the velvet mob -- it’s nice to think civility is about respect and the form of discourse. That is a fantasy. It is just as likely to be about disrespect and anti-intellectualism. When questions of civility are raised, it is rarely about form. Instead, it is a means of defining the topics of discourse and even the positions expressed. It does this in two ways. An unpopular view expressed civilly can be ignored because no one in the club need pay any attention. The same view expressed loudly and aggressively is obviously to be ignored since it comes from a person who is behaving unacceptably.

If the quietly expressed view seems to be gaining traction at all, the response will be "I am offended!!” or “That is inappropriate”(the latest most overused word which actually means "I do not like what I am hearing"). Those charges are brick wall discourse stoppers exactly at the point at which the discourse gets interesting -- most likely when something substantive is said that could have an actual impact on the club.

Let me give an example. At my school for years faculty had family members in their classes and generally the family members got A’s. It was evidently an accepted benefit of being a club member. (Think of it as a discounted green fee at the country club.) Trying to begin a conversation about whether this was a good practice – no matter how politely -- could quickly be met with “I am offended, you are accusing me of being dishonest.” Eventually, agitation embarrassed the faculty to take action and forbid the practice but appeals to civility retarded the action for several years.

Now think about the prospects for having a civil conversation about whether tenured faculty have been sufficiently productive or whether a program should be discontinued. It this really going to be carried on in carefully measured tones with appeals to reason? Or, is the very topic likely to raise the hackles of those threatened to the point that there are “friends” and “enemies” and “offense” is taken? Those threatened will be the first to raise the shield of civility. Behind that shield are some very nasty goings-on and the velvet-gloved mob. Civility is like a giant thumb on the scale in favor of the status quo.

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