Universities need less civility and more ‘shit‑kicking’

The University of California at Berkeley was the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement (FSM), a coalition of students and staff who came together in 1964 to hold sit-ins and protests to demand unrestricted freedom of speech on campus. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, Berkeley’s current chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, has sent an email to all faculty, staff and students. Unfortunately, the email seems to suggest that Dirks has learned nothing from that great victory for free speech.

In his email, Dirks argued that free speech is only legitimate when it is ‘civil’ and ‘courteous’: ‘Free speech and civility are two sides of a single coin – the coin of open, democratic society.’ It’s a sign of the times that such patronising statements can be made by powerful individuals without students and staff taking to the streets.

As Allan Bloom rightly pointed out in The Closing of the American Mind, students today are not particularly courageous or moral; instead they are ‘nice’. We can say the same about most academics today, too; they are ‘nice’, too nice. There is too much ‘niceness’ in universities. Academics and students are often required by their institutions to speak to one another with ‘respect’ and to ensure that discussions take place in ‘safe’ and ‘supportive’ environments. 

Courtesy is all well and good, but it is a dangerous and censorious etiquette that is being promoted by Dirks and others. Towards the end of chapter two of On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued against those who warned against ‘vituperative’ speech. Such strictures are the weapons of the powerful, he said:

‘With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion: against the unprevailing they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation.’

One way of silencing free speech is not to attack what is said but to attack the tone, attitude or demeanour of the speaker. It is a convenient way of telling people to ‘shut up’, and this is something Dirks and many other university officials realise. Indeed, it is becoming impossible for academics to challenge any of the prevailing trends in universities without the charge of ‘incivility’ being made. Today, it’s not considered ‘civil’ to challenge management’s ideas, however wrongheaded or destructive they may be. If you don’t believe me, look no further than the case of Professor Thomas Docherty, a well-known critic of contemporary higher education, who is facing disciplinary action at the University of Warwick for ‘sighing’, negative ‘body language’ and unwelcome use of ‘irony’.

Dirks has been given a line by line rebuttal on the website Popehat. The rebuttal is, for the most part, a civil response. But it’s important to point out that while Dirks’ email was also polite, it was an implicit threat to faculty, staff and students: ‘Speak civilly, be nice, or else!’ If students and academics are to challenge this tyranny of niceness, we need to be less restrained in taking on the likes of Dirks. As one more forthright commenter put it, these censorious ideas need a ‘fantastic shit-kicking’.

Dennis Hayes is a professor of education at the University of Derby and co-author of The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education.

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