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The irony of civilly protesting incivility

Op-ed: There's irony in demanding civil protests against incivility.

Recent protests at Yale, the University of Missouri and Towson University, among other schools, standing up for minority students have renewed attention to the roles of political correctness and freedom of expression on college campuses and sparked a nation-wide debate about whether universities should even strive to be so-called "safe spaces."

In one breath, some dismiss such efforts as coddling and declare that college must be a place where young people confront dangerous ideas and challenge the foundations of political correctness. But in the next breath, they also call for "civility" — itself a form of safe space.

There is an inherent contradiction in calling on students to tolerate the "provocative, the disturbing and the unorthodox" and to "think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable" while simultaneously preserving a "civil and respectful community" and "civility in all their interactions," as the Yale Freedom of Expression Policy dictates.

Let's take a moment to reflect on the meaning and history of the concepts of civility and civil discourse as we know them today. Civility is not necessarily as gentle as the "Choose Civility" bumper stickers suggest. Instead, it can be used as a weapon to silence and oppress. The history of the term reflects its power to stifle discontent and eliminate opposition. During the Age of Imperialism, the word was used regularly by European colonizers on "civilizing missions" against subjects — often non-Christian people of color — by suppressing any form of dissent they labeled "uncivil." Indeed, they condemned any resistance by indigenous peoples to their mission as a sign of incivility, and therefore, a sign that these peoples desperately needed European influence. In more recent history, oppressed populations who dare to engage in loud or aggressive forms of protest are vilified as violating civility. It's happening now to students at Yale and Mizzou and elsewhere.

And look at Baltimore earlier this year: Political leaders, the media and regular citizens denounced the riots following Freddie Gray's funeral as uncivil, and therefore unworthy of meaningful attention other than through the criminal justice system. Too frequently ignored was the fact that many have been civilly advocating for better treatment for years, yet the inequitable and miserable conditions they experience as black, low-income Americans remained in place. They tried to rise up against suffering and oppression, but because the form this act of free speech took did not match the mainstream American understanding of civil discourse, it was censured and discredited. Without endorsing criminal acts such as arson or looting, many historians will agree that turbulent expressions of dissent are required to generate meaningful change.

Students exercise their right to protest by decrying campus behavior that is culturally offensive to their minority peers. Their opponents, those in power, reject that right to protest due to its supposedly uncivil nature, while at the same time telling students they cannot object to forms of free expression that are harmful to minorities. Do you see the hypocrisy?

The authority figures overlook how they twist the notion of civility to exacerbate oppression of marginalized populations and to ultimately inhibit the free speech of those groups.

Every time someone in power refuses to acknowledge the grievances of the oppressed because those grievances are not framed in a manner considered 'civil,' they avoid taking responsibility for that oppression. They tell themselves they would help, if only the aggrieved would learn to engage in civil methods of dialogue. As Kwame Anthony Appiah recently wrote in the New York Times, "a culture of civility sometimes does make evasion easier."

And when those in power simultaneously call for the protection of free speech and civil debate, like at Yale and Mizzou, they appropriate these concepts to serve their own needs, while at the same time continuing a custom of restricting the free speech of the less powerful. In the current debate, many argue for free speech even in the face of blatantly culturally offensive behavior. As a result, civility becomes the context in which the culturally offensive behavior is tolerated, while at the same time it maintains a tradition of repression for marginalized peoples who themselves dare to practice free speech.

Maggie Tennis (maggie.a.tennis@gmail.com) recently graduated from Brown University, where she served as the opinions editor of the Brown Daily Herald. She now works in Baltimore.

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