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The Scarlet & Black

Living Feminist Theory at Grinnell: The limits of “civil discourse”

The moment has come to undertake a critical reevaluation of civil discourse as the guideline for intercampus communication and dialogue. As defined on the “Conversations” page of the College webpage, “civil discourse is engagement in conversation intended to enhance understanding.” Such conversations “take place in and out of the classroom, in formal and informal settings, and all value free expression and thoughtful dialogue.” Civil discourse is supposedly the only way for the Grinnell community to “come together to discuss issues that are important to everyone on campus.”

The principle of civil discourse guides almost all intercampus discussions. Before town hall meetings, and even in campus memos, civil discourse is announced as the guideline for which comments are acceptable—civil—and unacceptable—uncivil. Indeed, in the memo that President Raynard Kington sent to the campus following racist posts made on the app Yik Yak, he alluded to the need for the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Concerned Black Students, Multicultural Leadership Council and SGA to “explore constructive responses.” Upon first glance this request, that responses be constructive, is reasonable. However, it is important to ask who defines “constructive responses.” The vagueness of terms like “civil” and “constructive” opens the possibility that those in positions of power will call certain discourses “uncivil” and thereby delegitimize them on the principle of violating this covenant of the Grinnell community.

The College’s civil discourse policy did not arise out of nowhere. The origins of civil discourse, as the privileged standard for conversations around the public good, are in Enlightenment and classical liberal thought. Indeed, it was John Locke who first formulated the idea of civil discourse. Locke envisioned civil discourse as common conversation that uses dispassionate, value-free language and avoids antagonism. Despite its claims to objectivity, the principles of civil discourse are not value-neutral. The College’s civil discourse policy has its origins in an intellectual tradition that privileges dispassionate objectivity only at the expense of excluding “feelings” from the public sphere. For centuries, this tradition rationalized away the exclusion of women from the public sphere. It was presumed that woman, seen as purely emotional and the weaker sex, were incapable of the dispassionate objectivity required by civil discourse. And lest we forget, Locke himself said that Indians (Native Americans) “were to be classed with ‘children, idiots and illiterates.’”* Not such civil discourse here.

This history tells a lot about the ways civil discourse is often invoked to mask uncivil thoughts, feelings and actions. Recent racist campus actions are in fact acts of uncivil discourse, no doubt. Yet, feeling outraged and saddened by racism is also appropriate, even when expressed as uncivilly. It is also uncivil to ask people of color to take the lead in addressing racism, as scholar Ta-Nehisi Coates has expressed. Indeed, as we learned from his lecture, the point is to make white people uncomfortable about the benefits accrued from structural and daily racism. Some might well designate such a project as “uncivil” because some are made uncomfortable. When it comes to a subject that is as emotionally charged as racism, and along with it, racial privilege, the expectation that we should have to adhere to the affect-free speech of civil discourse is unsound. This expectation limits the possibility of “free exchange”—one of the aims, supposedly, of civil discourse. Those who have been the targets of recent racist action and language, and their allies, may rightfully employ loaded or antagonistic language to express to the College their outrage and feelings of lack of safety. Yet, they risk being seen as uncivil if they do so. At worst, the implication of the College’s civil discourse policy is that anyone who brings uncivil speech to the conversation should not be considered a part of the Grinnell community. In cases of uncivil actions—notably, actions frequently expressed precisely through words—we are called upon to rethink the parameters of civility altogether.

* Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media. London: Routledge, 1994. P. 88.

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