Discomfort and Civility on College Campuses

There seem to be incongruous concerns growing around many college campuses.

On the one hand, young people are accused of being fragile and coddled, too concerned with creating an artificial, shallow, ‘politically correct’ environment. At the same time, there are increasing calls for civility in response to student complaints.

The dance becoming familiar: something happens, students complain, the university administration calls for civility while the those watching from the outside throw up their hands at the coddled youth of today.

Why can’t they just calm down?

Let’s discuss this civilly.

I call these concerns incongruous because, while sounding like a call for moderation, calling for civility is essentially calling for a maintenance of the status quo. It’s a polite way of saying, you are wrong to be concerned.

Nobody calls for civility when outrage is considered to be well-founded.

As Audre Lourde says in her brilliant 1981 speech The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism: “Mainstream communication wants racism to be accepted as an immutable given in the fabric of your existence, like evening time or the common cold.”

Student protests are a disruption to that fabric. Favoring an absence of controversy, most administrations respond with level-head calls for civility. They hold community dialogues where only those who agree with them show up. The others have already written off the process.

Well-meaning administers say and do all the polite things, baffled by students’ outrage and anger.

Meanwhile, students see inaction and platitudes; calls for civility when any reasonable person would be up in arms. Students are as confounded by administration placidity as administrators are of students’ anger.

As Lourde describes, “I cannot hide my anger to spare you guilt, nor hurt feelings, nor answering anger.” Our students cannot hide their anger.

Yet, civility and politeness are the prevailing norms in proper society. Perhaps it is only natural to expect proper students to conform to these norms.

There is a study I heard awhile ago – the most homogenous school districts give themselves the highest measures on discussing issues of diversity.

Diversity is easy to discuss when people are mostly the same.

It’s the places where there is true diversity, where people come from a wide variety of backgrounds – it is these places where topics of diversity are most difficult to tackle.

A risk-adverse administrator would be wise to prefer a homogenous community. With, perhaps, a splash of difference to benefit the mainstream and fulfill any principles of diversity.

This is the model that students object to. Students of color aren’t “diversity” intended to educate their white peers. And yet their anger is often dismissed as the sensitive ravings of over-privileged youth.

It is, I think, this aversion to risk, this aversion to discomfort, which is most problematic as we collectively strive towards social justice. Young people are told that they are wrong to demand safe spaces on campus, yet administrators, too, are guilty of seeking the outcome that most suits their needs.

And that just makes students even more angry.


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