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A brief history of “civility” and its abuses, ancient and current

I’ve always thought “civil speech” meant honest and effective talk about how to resolve matters of importance to civil society, but for many people, including many university administrators, it seems to mean polite niceties that do not offend.

Historian Joan Scott has a fascinating piece in The Nation on the rather ugly history of “civility”, and its current abuses. In “The New Thought Police: Why are campus administrators invoking civility to silence critical speech?” she explains what’s really going on when people invoke civility:

… 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.

The most comprehensive history of civility is Norbert Elias’s classic, The Civilizing Process(1939). In this account of the development of manners in Western Europe, civility is the standard that defines the identity of a group against a reviled and subordinate “other.” Elias explains that whether it was Christians against barbarians, or court aristocrats against the rising middle class, or the upper bourgeoisie attempting to distinguish themselves from the lower orders, “civilisé was…one of the many terms…by which the courtly people wished to designate…the specific quality of their own behaviour, and by which they contrasted the refinement of their own social manners, their ‘standard,’ to the manners of simpler and socially inferior people.”

Scholars have documented these power differentials and how notions of civility were used to define them. Kathleen Brown describes the association of civility with cleanliness in 16th-century America: “Writers documenting contact with Native Americans and West Africans evoked civility in exclusive ways, conjuring fears of animal natures unmitigated by Christian virtue and foreshadowing the meanings attached to civilization a century later.” William Chafe points out that during the sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, peaceful demonstrators—deliberately conducting themselves respectably and in a nonviolent manner as they claimed their civil rights—were charged with incivility. John Murray Cuddihy, a sociologist of religion, wrote of the effects of what he called “the Protestant etiquette” on “emancipated” Jewish intellectuals. The problem for these men (Marx, Freud, and Lévi-Strauss) was at once to live by the codes of decorum their societies required for success and to wrestle with the designation of their kind as the embodiment of incivility: obsessive, fanatical, vulgar, effeminate, unrestrained—the disruptive Jewish id to the responsible Christian superego.

She goes on to connect this history to more recent abuses of the term by university administrators, for example in trying to justify the firing of Stephen Sailita at UIUC, and other faculty at other universities. Thanks to a reader for pointing me to this article.

A brief history of the UO administration’s efforts to impose civility rules on the faculty is here. The attempt was led by Mike Gottfredson, Tim Gleason, and Randy Geller. It was beaten back by the faculty union and then finished off by the Senate’s ad hoc Freedom Committee, chaired by Michael Dreiling. Every now and then the administration tries to revive it – as in the current faculty union bargaining – but at this point the pro-freedom faculty coalition is pretty strong.


  1. that effing Dog again 05/26/2015

    A corollary to civility issue that I have personally observed to change significantly over the last N years is

    “the loss of the neutral expert opinion”

    I have seen this most notably in the context of congressional testimony but it is pervasive at all levels. All of my interactions with various members of University Admin over the last N’ years also bears this out.

    This convolved with civility leads to the following dynamic, that I have more or less observed to be unbroken for many years.

    1. An issue exist – you might actually have some expert knowledge on the issue for various reasons

    2. You discuss the issue in an all-inclusive environment where everyone’s “opinion” is equally weighted even though everyone’s expert knowledge is not.

    3. If you try to convey your expert knowledge in a neutral way – it will not be perceived as being neutral – it will be perceived as having an agenda behind it (and I find it impossible at any level to show that this is not the case). This agenda is because

    a) I want to get my way
    b) I will get something out of this if it goes my way
    c) I am just an uncivil asshole

    4. So once condition 3 is reached, various levels of incivility set in as no one respects your neutral expert opinion because, in fact, it seems, that these days, expert knowledge is solely in the domain of uncivil assholes.

    5. As a result of the all inclusive nature, content-free but nicely delivered opinions are those that matter the most. Style triumphs substance everywhere. Expert knowledge about conditions in the real world on some issue do not seem to matter.

    Once upon a time, the expert neutral opinion was valued and meaningful discussions at root levels occurred. Once in that time people seemed more secure, more willing to take risk, and less worried about appearances or going along to get along.

    At the very least, during that time, discussions actually had content and not the superficial platitude and buzz word filled discussions of now where, really, the only think that matters is making everyone happy. Man’ I am so fuckin’ happy I can hardly stand it –
    err, was that uncivil?

  2. Harbaugh fan 05/27/2015

    I have a friend that used to work in the General Counsel’s Office who told me that the case they’re building against you is accusing you of dishonesty, not incivility. They’re trying to get it done so that Scott can act on it before he leaves the interim position.

    • just different 05/27/2015

      Wow. Somebody should ask Coltrane about this point-blank at a Senate meeting. Too bad it looks like he won’t be there today.

  3. curious 05/28/2015

    any update to this? Did it come up at the Senate meeting?

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