Tuesday, January 15, 2008



This story in IHE made me laugh out loud. Apparently, a community college in New Jersey briefly floated a policy to encourage 'civility' that was anything but. The provisions were:

1. Honesty, integrity, and respect for all will guide my personal conduct.
2. I will embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually.
3. I will build an inclusive community enriched by diversity.
4. I am willing to respect and assist those individuals who are less fortunate.
5. I promise my commitment to civic engagement and to serve the needs of the community to the best of my ability.

Yes, they overshot. I'd say, comically so. (Number 2 is my favorite. “I celebrate your staggering wrongness! I embrace your breathtaking, fundamental category error!”) But there is some value to the idea of civility that apparently animated the original idea. If we understand civility as something like “the rules for participating in the organization,” then it seems reasonable to me to go beyond “I know it when I see it.” The mistake wasn't in trying to write it down; it was in absurdly overreaching.

My proposed code of civil conduct for higher ed, or speech code, if you prefer:

I will separate the speaker from the speech.

That's it.

I don't think it unduly impinges on academic freedom. Attack someone's speech (or writing) to your heart's content. If you think they're wrong, explain why, and be prepared to have to explain back. Just don't move from “you're wrong” to “you're bad.” The former is the risk of any new idea; the latter simply ends discussion. I would apply this standard to academic arguments, as well as to arguments among academics.

(For example, in arguing against, say, single-payer health care, a statement like “that would stifle innovation” or “that would politicize a private decision” would be worth addressing. A statement like “you liberals and your fantasies of a nanny state,” on the other hand, would not. Racial slurs would be out of bounds by definition, since they attack the person.)

I'd like to think that higher ed, of all places, should be where people can try on different ideas for size. It's where they can experiment, play ideas off against each other, test theories, and, yes, be wrong. My image of the physical sciences is that they come pretty close to this. (It's not perfect or friction-free, but the ideal is recognizable.) Data trump rank, which is as it should be. Yes, some people build credibility over time by being right a lot, but there's always the possibility of proving them wrong.

“Proof” is a tougher call in the social sciences and humanities, but it's still possible to adduce better or worse evidence for a given argument. (If it isn't, I'd like to know just what the hell we're doing.)

Am I rejecting the feminist ideal that the personal is political? I don't think so. I'd draw a distinction between the 'personal' in the sense of the 'traditionally private' and the 'personal' in the sense of 'the idiosyncratic.' Anybody who reads my blog for any length of time knows that I routinely include elements of family life, either for comic relief or to make a point about the tensions in trying to make 'work' plus 'home' equal 'a decent life,' and the costs to everyone of those tensions. By making, say, administrative jobs largely incompatible with parenting young children, we lose a significant pool of potential talent. There's a cost to that, and it's a properly public issue. 'Personal' stuff that can be generalized strikes me as reasonable fodder for public discussion.

What strikes me as unproductive is the personal stuff that shuts down discussion. In the 90's, there was a fad of “it's a (blank) thing, you wouldn't understand,” that struck me as incredibly offensive. If taken literally, which it seemingly sometimes was, it implied that discussion was useless. If that's true, we're in very deep trouble.

By my standard, the idea of, say, affirmative action for political conservatives on college faculties would be absolutely out of the question. If the basis of your employment is a fixed idea, then you've already defeated the purpose of academic inquiry. Real academic inquiry always carries the risk of changing your mind. If changing your mind would cost you your job, then we've defeated the purpose.

(This is also why I'm deeply skeptical of the possibility of real academic freedom at a religiously-affiliated college. If the answers are given in advance, why bother asking the questions?)

My proposal is certainly vulnerable to a charge of political naivete. If the other side (however defined) doesn't fight 'fair,' why should we? Isn't that unilateral disarmament?

There's some truth to this. The ideal is only an ideal, and in practice, the categories can sometimes be hard to separate. In the context of higher ed, I'd have to say that the ideal of open inquiry is worth considerable sacrifice. A college shouldn't be run like a political campaign or a cult. In a political campaign, you shouldn't always separate the speaker from the speech, since the speaker is running for office. But for higher ed, it strikes me as a pretty good rule of thumb.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?

I like your proposed code and its rationale very much, though I confess that in the heat of academic argument, I am all too willing to pick up the cudgels and go for the kneecaps.
I like the code very much.

There is also the issue, at least in my field, of "espoused theories" (what people say they do as profs, administrators, teachers, public school administrators) and "theories in action" (what they ACTUALLY do in their day-to-day lives). While this is a constructed dicotomy, it does start to disentangle the sometimes staggering hypocrasy of ourselves and our colleagues.

How many people actually start the day with the notion, "Ah, another day, another day filled with endless opportunities to be a liar and a hypocrite!" Nope....So there must be "something else" going on.

Political Correctness run amok. It will ultimately be the downfall of our nation.
Well put DD.

Another simple rule for a complex world.
An elegant way of putting it. In seminars, I routinely remind students to criticize the idea and not the person.
"Political Correctness run amok. It will ultimately be the downfall of our nation."

No, I will be the downfall of our nation! My unstoppable kill-bot armies and orbital death ray platforms will conquer you all! You will all kneel before me!


Keep it straight. And get some baggy pants, because there'll be a lot of kneeling before my awesome majesty.

Who needs tenure when you have unstoppable kill-bot armies?
I would add "When someone attacks your ideas, s/he is not attacking you."

Some of the personal attacks that pass for discussion spring from a defensive interpretation. I just bowed out of a discussion wherein "I disagree with you" was interpreted by a third party as "You make me sick!"

I find it rather ironic that I teach at this particular college mentioned in the article and this is the first time I heard of this loyalty oath. Thankfully I've been a faithful reader to your blog or else I would've missed this entirely.

You do have to understand the context that this "oath" takes place in. The college had a number of racial incidents which made a lot of people take notice. However, like you, I think this oath is too PC for my taste. I would not make my students swear such an oath.

One thing I will share is that President Ryan is new to the college as of Fall '07 and many faculty did not like his appointment. Many of his ideas, including restructuring, have led to a lot of head-butting. This whole oath idea causes me to lose what little faith I had in him.

It's hard to teach civility when the teachers themselves have little sense of it.

The decrease in classroom and academic civility is, to me, where we are seeing the decline philosophy and debate's importance in h.s. and college curricula. Those are the places, along with perhaps literature classes, where the structure of debate is learned.

For instance, on your rule: where else but philosophy is the ad hominem fallacy taught?

I am an historian. When I teach history, I usually spend the first few classes orienting my students to the philosophical way to critique non-fiction books. We spend time talking, in terms of writing, how to debate with an author. I also try to foster this in class---insofar as I can get them to understand the debatableness of history.

I digress.



We English teachers--or at least this one--spend some time on the ad hominem fallacy.

"I will separate the speaker from the speech."

This sounds to me a little bit like a secular version of "hate the sin, love the sinner," which often gets criticized for degenerating into hate the sin = hate the sinner. To me, it seems obvious that critique should not be (or become) hatred, but the gap seems to narrow with perilous speed at times. So, with that in mind, does distinguishing wrong speech from bad speakers really work? (This is a genuine question, insofar as I don't have my own answer yet.)
Most people cannot separate their identities from their deeply-held positions, and as a result will interpret any attack on their positions as an attack on themselves.

It would be nice if people put your rule into practice, but getting people to discipline their criticisms is only half the battle. Your rule only covers part of what's required for intellectual integrity - it doesn't go far enough.
Interesting... anonymous 2:52 wrote: "So, with that in mind, does distinguishing wrong speech from bad speakers really work?"

What I think would help would be to not view someone's speech as "wrong speech" (implied moral value judgment) but rather as perhaps (hopefully) demonstrably incorrect.

For instance, if someone says war has never solved any problem (way to vague a charge) it would be appropriate to question operational definitions of "help" and "war" and then ask how one characterizes the US involvement in WWII. Depending on the operational definition, one may find that either your two world views are incommensurate, or one can work towards a common definition that could then work towards an at least factually correct position.

A more inflammatory condition would perhaps be if one hears another say they were "gyp'd" out of something. While the "enlightened" individual knows that it is poor form to use such a derogatory phrase (meant to demean gypsies) more often than not the speaker has no knowledge of the etymology, and meant no greater offense than to say they felt cheated. Asking if they knew the root of the saying can go a long way towards understanding.

Bottom line: avoiding "moral sounding" judgments of speech goes a long way in helping separate the speech from the speaker.
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