Tag Archives: civility

When Civility Is Brown

13 Feb

By Sandy Soto

In his sharp Bully Bloggers post on “Civility Disobedience” last fall, Tavia Nyong’o  pointed out that (in)civility is too often taken up by we who might be most suspicious of that tool: “Why are we, who are cast outside the circle of privileges that accrue to the civilized, still drawn to and invested in the lure of civility? Is it precisely because we sense that it is a tape against which we are measured and forever falling short?” Yes, I think so.

BienMalEducado

I’ve been thinking about Tavia’s questions a lot in the context of brownness—both brownness in relation to Chicanada and brownness in the more capacious, but more specific, way that José Esteban Muñoz had been thinkin’ it, feelin’ it, diggin’ it.

Chicanada is a term I’ve always thought of as lovingly and proudly naming brown resistance in all its complicated and competing forms—from the vato loco cry ¡Pachuco Yo! (raul salínas), to the dyke’s tattooed ofrenda (Ester Hernández), to the in-your-face literature written by The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About.

raul salínas

raul salínas, University of Wisconsin, late 1970s

La Ofrenda II (1990) Ester Hérnandez

La Ofrenda II (1990) Ester Hernández

Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1991

Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1991

The great thing about Chican@ is that the moment you claim it for yourself, you necessarily give yourself some breathing room against bourgeois norms–including civility. We leave accommodation to the Hispanics. At least that’s what I’ve always thought. But then, NACCS.

  • Around the time that we were becoming glued to the Steven Salaita case in outrage that the UIUC administration had fired him just weeks before he was to start his job because, in the words of the Board of Trustees, “we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.” (HT Lisa Duggan for noting in her 2014 ASA presidential address that, “I have yet to hear an administrator denounce the incivility of university donors or those who defend their interests.”)…
  • Around the time that in Ferguson, Missouri a white cop murdered 18-year old Michael Brown, unarmed but Black…
  • Around the time that the media and pundits were accusing broken-hearted protestors in Ferguson of being uncivil animals and around the time that militarized forces were sent in to restore order…

Around that time—actually, not around, but on the heels of Salaita and Ferguson–the National Association of Chicana & Chicano [not Hispanic, right?] Studies (NACCS) announced their theme for the 2015 conference in San Francisco.

Exploring Civility within the Chicana & Chicano Studies Discipline

Huh? Does that mean that civility is something that exists in Chican@ studies and that we are being invited to write some papers that explore its existence? Or, did NACCS mean to work “Discipline” as a double-entendre, which, in relation to Civility, was meant to critically invoke disciplining, because Salaita, because Ferguson, because HB 2281 (which shut down Ethnic Studies in TUSD classrooms based on a right-wing campaign run on the argument that those classrooms were teaching students to be uncivil), because imperialism, because colonialism, because genocide, because the cult of true womanhood….? Why else would they have risked reducing Chican@ Studies to one, singular Discipline in their theme when we all know that Chican@ Studies is a heterogeneous, interdisciplinary site of contestation that at its best resists groupthink and disciplining in relation to academic codification and/or injunctions toward civility?

But, no. The three paragraph description of the theme and the list of possible topics in the CFP, made it clear that NACCS–at least in this moment under this particular leadership–had adopted the rhetoric of civility and was using it in the most prescriptive ways to shape the 2015 gathering.

Original NACCS Call for Papers

Original NACCS Call for Papers

Since its formation in the early 1970s, NACCS has provided a much-needed infrastructure for the Chican@ Studies annual gathering of academics, students, artists and activists—most of them Chican@. NACCS bills itself as an organization that “rejects mainstream research, which promotes an integrationist perspective that emphasizes consensus, assimilation, and legitimization of societal institutions,” and that “promotes research that directly confronts structures of inequality based on class, race, and gender privileges in U.S. society.” And for the most part, it has resisted professionalization. It’s one of the few conferences I know of, for example, that welcomes—and has a dedication to accepting—submissions from undergraduate students. (I can’t imagine not having had access to NACCS myself as a young MEChista. Those annual experiences helped me believe that I could make a place for myself in academia.)

As you can imagine, then, the moment the call for papers and conference theme were announced, Chican@s took to social media and hallway conversation to express shock that NACCS was calling for civility, and at this particular moment, no less. Some people—mainly NACCS insiders—did come to the defense of the chair-elect (who thought up the theme) by explaining that she had actually chosen civility as her conference theme before the Salaita incident and before Ferguson (as if those uses of civility are anything new), or by reminding us that the theme doesn’t much matter anyway, because submissions don’t need to stick to it (as if a conference theme and CFP aren’t reflections of the spirit and values of the organization). It kills me that I’ve decided not to include here a gorgeous screenshot of one Chicano professor’s particularly noteworthy postings on facebook in defense of the theme. But let me tell you, people, it was a beautiful combination of fuckity fuckity fuck you (but more masculine than the ity I just typed, sabes?) hurled at those of us who were critical of the theme, and an in-your-face machista invitation to go toe-to-toe, esé. Hell, any day give me those speech acts instead of the politely soft responses we  received from the NACCS leadership:

  1. “The NACCS Board appreciates the comments expressed on the 2015 theme. At this time the description has been removed and the Board will be discussing these concerns.” (09/04/14)
  2. “The Board thanks the membership for the feedback of the recent CFP. After deliberation and feedback from Board Members, a CFP revision will be released on September 12, 2015. The Board feels that the idea of ‘civility’ is important to engage in its different forms, in its various meanings, and in its numerous consequences. We look forward to the continued discussion of these ideas in our forthcoming conference.” (09/07/14)
  3. And, finally, the new and improved theme, dressed up with some Español, cool slash marks, and struggle (09/12/14):

Chicana/o In/Civilities: Contestación y Lucha:
Cornerstones of Chicana & Chicano Studies

revised cfp

Revised CFP

No thank you, NACCS.

The revised CFP claims that “Communications and dialogue with the NACCS membership” took place after the original CFP was released. No they didn’t–unless there were conversations (other than the fuckity fuck one) that I wasn’t privy to. I only saw those of us who were critical of the theme expressing our thoughts. It wasn’t a reciprocal conversation. But what’s most upsetting to me about the revised CFP is not that, it’s this: “‘Civility’ is a complex yet essential concept for social interaction and communication. Change agents such as Emma Tenayuca, Ernesto Galarza, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Corky Gonzalez, Gloria Anzaldúa, and many current leaders of different social movements have struggled to strategically find the balance between ‘civility [sic] and ‘incivility’ in order to achieve cultural, political, and economic transformation at both the individual and social level.” How have we arrived here—a juncture in which our brown revolutionaries are dubbed (through the corporate-derived speech of capitalism) “change agents”? How have we come to the place where a political construct like “civility” (that has a history) is completely naturalized by NACCS leaders as though it always already existed in some pure natural form, if only we could work our way back to that sweetness against all of the misuse and corruption over time?

Advertisements

Civility Disobedience

18 Aug

By Tav Nyong’o

Has incivility become the new obscenity?

Everywhere one turns these days, it seems, ‘civility’ is being held up as a norm to which we all agreed to be held accountable. When was this consensus to be civil arrived at? Nobody can quite say. It must have been when we weren’t looking. But it’s suddenly everywhere: in open letters and videotaped homilies by university presidents, in the conference themes of progressive scholarly organizations, even in the campaign ads of Midwestern sheriffs (HT Ali Abunimah). Liberal icons John Stewart and Stephen Colbert even convened a national rally in 2010 “To Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a sardonic retort to what those who attended perceived to be the raucous incivility of Tea Parties (HT Lisa Duggan). And indeed, civility sounds like a value all but a lunatic fringe should consent to. But it’s effects on our freedoms can be surprisingly negative. The exercise of what we could be forgiven for assuming were our “civil liberties” — freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, common use of public space — increasingly hit tripwire detectors for incivility, often with arbitrarily punitive consequences.

Sign1

At the moment, the charge of incivility is most frequently being wielded against those whose political speech touches a third rail in American politics: the near-universal support our political class and academic leadership gives to the State of Israel. Steven Salaita, a scholar of indigenous resistance in Palestine and North America, lost a job at the University of Illinois when his righteous indignation, as expressed on social media, over the Israeli bombardment of Gaza this past summer offended some of the university’s donors and trustees. Civility here must be read as a barely veiled code for ‘civilized’; and this recourse to ‘civil’ as a standard to which all must adhere calls to mind Malcolm X’s famous critique of ‘civil rights’ as a limiting framework for the black freedom struggle. Malcolm implored black people to internationalize our struggle by refusing the US and state-centric model of “civil rights” under law and instead appealing to global solidarity with the oppressed through the rubric of “human rights.” It is precisely this global appeal to a planetary, anti-racist standard of human rights that led to Salaita being indicted for his “incivility,” transgressing the political quietism of the imperial university was enough to get him booted off campus without the pretense of due process.

image10-Jennifer-Doyle-Campus-Security

 

Scathing, funny, and impassioned political speech did not originate on Twitter; our right to it is in fact the reason we have a First Amendment. But in the “incredibly shrinking public sphere,” as Lisa Duggan has termed it, declamatory speech of the kind that would not be out of place as at a campus rally is now occasion for professional reprisals, with even liberals handwringing over how to ‘tolerate’ the ‘intolerable.’

Ostensibly, the new civility codes have little to do directly with sex. But the neoliberal rhetoric of the campus as a space under threat is deeply intertwined with in the continued infantilization of the democratic sphere, and is thus deeply connected to moral and sex panics. Jennifer Doyle demonstrates this point in a powerful recent pamphlet, Campus Security. Doyle recounts how one police justification for the notorious pepper spray incident at the University of California was the need to protect students, gendered as feminized victims, from the masculinized and racialized threat of occupiers who weren’t currently enrolled students. The justification of the use of real force against students in order to protect them from hypothetical aggressions is the kind of security state doublespeak we routinely confront these days. At the University of Illinois, for example, it apparently fell to administrators, trustees and donors to protect students from the political viewpoints of prospective professors, when and where those views could be adjudged (unilaterally, without any grievance process) to create even a potential situation of harm, discomfort, or threat.

The imposition of civility comes at a curious juncture when privacy is also everywhere under assault. The appeal of civility for those who stand to be regulated by it is that it will provide shelter from the radical loss of privacy that new technologies are unleashing. As Mark Zuckerberg once retorted when challenged regarding insufficient privacy controls on Facebook: what’s the problem if you have nothing to hide? Similarly, those who defend civility as a standard assume that only the truly aberrant would have anything to say that couldn’t be expressed civilly anyway. And why would we want to extend them the protections enjoyed by others?

These protections ostensibly extended by the new civility, of course, fall unevenly on actual students and other young people. Civility failed to protect Michael Brown, due to begin classes at Vatterott College this fall, who was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri while walking in his neighborhood. Immediately after his murder, he was retrospectively vilified as a dangerous hoodlum, not a recent high school graduate with no prior criminal record, much as Trayvon Martin and so many black women and men before and after him have had their histories, rather than those of their assailants, placed on public trial. When Brown’s community rose up in righteous indignation against police occupation, the black exercise of civil liberties was met with tear-gas, rubber bullets, agents provocateurs, tanks, snipers and police screaming “animals!” at the citizens they were sworn to protect and serve.

hqdefault

In the wake of Ferguson, many more Americans learned that “civility” is experienced by black Americans primarily as compulsory and non-reciprocal compliance to arbitrary state violence. There were many messages of solidarity, and practical exchanges of resistance tactics, between Gaza and Ferguson. But, despite these rhizomatic uprisings against antiblack racism, imperialism, and war — all of which challenge us to be radically critical of the promise of freedom, democracy and civil society dangled before us by our rulers — the answer in some quarters remains, stubbornly, more of the same. More civility, rather than a radical questioning of its terms.

In the wake of such brutal and total abrogation of basic constitutional protections, international human rights, and the rule of law in the summer of 2014, one must ask: what is the point of being civil? If civility means the censorship of intellectuals, deference to racist cops, complicity in our state’s funding and support of aerial bombardment of civilians, and acquiescence to a decayed and corrupt system of democracy-turned-plutocracy, of what value is civility, exactly? What alternative to it might there be?

For queer politics, Gayle Rubin’s foundational essay, “Thinking Sex,” holds enduring relevance on this score. Her ostensible topic in that essay is sex and pleasure, not suffering and violence. But everything that is at stake in the essay has to do with the ability of the state and media — and ourselves — to magically convert the former into the latter, and to cultivate moral panics around harms where there are none. Rubin argued that our inability to recognize and value the range and diversity of means through which we seek and obtain pleasure, our reluctance to take sex seriously, is intertwined with a more general logic of repression, exclusion and violence.

978-0-8223-4986-0_pr

In order to challenge the logic of repressive tolerance that divides us into good, civil subjects and bad, disorderly ones, we cannot seek to rescue the most eligible of the socially stigmatized: those clearest to the center of what Rubin calls “the charmed circle.” We must directly confront the apparatuses that divide the acceptable from the unacceptable.

Rubin’s charmed circle resonates with an image Kimberlé Crenshaw turns to in her famous law review article that disseminated the concept of intersectionality. Here she compared antidiscrimination law reform to the effort to lift a group of individuals from a subterranean basement, and the temptation to start with those nearest to the top, those whose difference seems the easiest to rehabilitate. Intersectional analysis, in Crenshaw’s view, was the refusal to take this easy out, and to instead labor on working on injustice from the bottom up.

Whether from the outside in, or the bottom up, both Rubin and Crenshaw urged feminist, anti-racist, and queer organizing not to pick and choose those campaigns deemed most winnable, those victims deemed most telegenic, those tactics deemed most acceptable, or that language deemed most civil. I have to admit that this is a difficult standard to live up to. Particularly as the political center of the nation has drifted ever-rightward, as the scale of endemic crisis grows ever more planetary, one can plausibly wonder if principled radicalism grows self-canceling past a certain point. But there seems to be no way to ask this question without reinstating the hierarchies that Rubin, Crenshaw, and a host of other intellectuals and activists have urged us to dismantle. And so it seems we still desperately need more politically vital questions to ask and answer than the tired old saw of “where do you draw the line?”

The very drawing of the line, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten show in their powerful recent essay, The Undercommons, is a strategy of white settler colonial rule. “The settler,” they write, “having settled for politics, arms himself in the name of civilisation while critique initiates the self-defense of those who see hostility in the civil union on settlement and enclosure.” Politics casts itself as surrounded by the pre-political, the anti-political, the para- and the infra-human. Their radical critique of politics as we know it, in favor of social life as we feel, sense, think, study and celebrate it, points us beyond the stale coordinates offered up by yet another civics lesson delivered by our betters. We don’t need to learn to be better citizens; as the ongoing mobilization around the Salaita case, around Ferguson, and a series of other insurgent movements shows. We need learn how better to refuse the terms upon which citizenship and the good star of “civility” is offered, always provisionally, to the charmed few.

As commentators have noted, civility sounds like a venerable democratic principle, but is actually antithetical to the direct and participatory democracy many want to build. Democratic society — and in particular the social movements that push against the constraints of populist conformism — in principle relishes vibrant and vituperative antagonism. And yet one routinely encounters attempts (such as the recent NY Times opinion parsing an invidious distinction between ‘impoliteness,’ which may be acceptable, and ‘incivility,’ which is corrosive. The distinction, it turns out, is unworkable, begging the question: then why draw it?

Perhaps a more useful question than where to draw the line would be to ask: Why are we, who are cast outside the circle of privileges that accrue to the civilized, still drawn to and invested in the lure of civility? Is it precisely because we sense that it is a tape against which we are measured and forever falling short?

emf

Portrait of the Writer as a Young Private Secretary

I learned this lesson early in life watching A Passage to India, a film that had an indelible impact on my postcolonial childhood in Kenya. Indeed, the film instilled in me the anticolonial Kenyan ideology that Dinesh D’Souza hilariously attributes to our current president (if only!). In the film, Dr. Aziz, an educated Indian doctor during the period of British colonial rule, struggles to balance his genial and tolerant nature with the constant racism and snobbery of his English “betters.” In one unforgettable scene, Aziz pretends to have a spare collar stud (whatever that is) to lend to the Englishman who is brashly getting dressed right in front of him, which Aziz has to discretely remove the stud from his own impeccable suit. Later on, another Englishman, the local magistrate, mocks Aziz for appearing in public “in his Sunday best” but forgetting his collar stud (whatever that is). He casts racist aspersions on the doctor for being a foolish colonial mimic: trying to approximate British civil standards only underscores how innately different he is.

Dr. Aziz with the thingamajig.

Dr. Aziz with the all-important thingamajig.

The moral of the story for ten year old me was clear: a) these British colonialists are crazy and b) don’t ever assume that your efforts to live up to Euro-American arbitrary standards of civilized dress, deportment, or language will ever be enough to reverse the power imbalance.

I was too young on first watching A Passage to India, however, to truly grapple with the second half of the film, which turns darker when Ms. Quested, a visiting Englishwoman Dr. Aziz thought was a friend, accuses him of rape, prompting a dramatic trial which ends up putting the unjust colonial system of law in the docket, and sends Aziz bitterly fleeing from “civilized” English India. His personal effects are exhibited in court, he is accused of planning a trip to a brothel, and otherwise depicted as a sex-crazed savage, rather than a genteel, English speaking physician. At a climactic moment Ms. Quested withdraws her accusation (making this a tricky film to revisit in the current climate of victim-bashing, I well recognize), but the stakes in interpreting this outcome are not nearly so simple as racism versus sexism. The total abandonment of Ms. Quested by her white colonial society, once they cannot use her victimization as a legal cudgel against insurgent Indians, tells the viewer all she or he needs to know. The colonial state is both racist and sexist, even (or especially) when it is defending values such as civility, feminine virtue, rule of law and white supremacy.

In an earlier blog on this site, Jack Halberstam explored “how a neoliberal rhetoric of individual pain obscures the violent sources of social inequity” and argued that “neoliberalism precisely goes to work by psychologizing political difference, individualizing structural exclusions and mystifying political change.” Watching A Passage to India again today reminds me of the long colonial prehistory to contemporary neoliberalism. As many scholars in critical race studies have noted, colonized and racialized people were the first “flexible” and “precarious” subjects: that flexibility often demanded through the dynamics of what Homi Bhabha calls “sly civility.” Dr. Aziz, until his powerful rejection of the British at film’s end, embodies this sly civility: only when he grasps his fate is a collective one can he discard the exceptional status bequeathed him as one of the educated “good ones.”

In a contemporary context, Joseph Massad has recently written powerfully about how civility is used to police the boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable Arab- and Muslim-Americans, and how we ourselves can get caught up in those police actions. “The war to control the university rages on” he notes, “but the forces of repression, which hide behind white Protestant normative civility that they deploy to advance neoliberal control, are sharpening their knives and learning from their past mistakes.” Behind every document of civility, he might as well have continued, is a document of barbarism. Creative disobedience to compulsory civility isn’t any kind of guarantee. But without its wild resources we would be greatly impoverished to wage the kind of struggles we are in the midst of now.