Keywords for the Age of Austerity 11: Civility (at NYU and the University of Illinois)

Earlier this month, the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign recently took the unprecedented step of rescinding a job offer to the Palestinian-born scholar Steven Salaita, who was set to begin classes there this week. It was a unilateral move by the upper administration, apparently taken in response to a series of tweets in which Salaita condemned the Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Others have already written on the case and its implications for academic freedom—see especially Corey Robin’s blog and this op-ed by many Illinois faculty, for example. (Also check out @FakeCaryNelson on Twitter, for all the latest from a fictional version of the former advocate of academic freedom.)

In the spirit of this blog, I want to focus on the 2 official statements on the case from Illinois’ Chancellor, Phyllis Wise, and its Board of Trustees. As efforts at damage control, they are on the one hand singular in their ineloquence and ineptitude. Yet on the other hand they are familiar in their abuse of notions like “civility,” “debate,” and “discourse”—especially when the latter are “robust,” a keyword forthcoming on this blog.

As others have already observed, the letters from the Chancellor and the Board make a mockery of important scholarly concepts like academic freedom, constitutionality, and English syntax. In a key section of her letter, published as a blog post on her office’s website, Chancellor Wise reaches a cannot-and-will-not crescendo that is meant to signal to you that this is a Robust Leader speaking. It ends with an illogical mess that signals to me that this is instead a rather desperate manager (without a copy editor) grasping at rhetorical straws:

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.

Viewpoints, of course, can’t be demeaned—nor is there any attempt to explain what constitutes “personal,” “disrespectful,” demeaning, or abusive words, much less the combination of all four, much less still the relationship between viewpoints and those that express them.

Among these other sins, though, Wise’s short letter is also rather redundant: it uses “diverse and diversity” 4 times, “discourse” three times, and “civil” or “civility” 3 times. To quote her again at length:

Some of our faculty are critical of Israel, while others are strong supporters. These debates make us stronger as an institution and force advocates of all viewpoints to confront the arguments and perspectives offered by others. We are a university built on precisely this type of dialogue, discourse and debate.

Note the redundant use of “dialogue, discourse and debate” here, in which all 3 are treated as identical concepts, their differences elided in the banal, alliterative evocation of intellectual life as imagined by bureaucrats—a sing-songy pantomime of actual thinking.

The follow-up letter from the Board of Trustees doubles down on Wise’s careless invocation of “civility” as the highest virtue of intellectual life. They use it as part of a grander claim about the university’s social and political mission:

Our campuses must be safe harbors where students and faculty from all backgrounds and cultures feel valued, respected and comfortable expressing their views…The University of Illinois must shape men and women who will contribute as citizens in a diverse and multi­cultural democracy. To succeed in this mission, we must constantly reinforce our expectation of a university community that values civility as much as scholarship.

Disrespectful and demeaning speech that promotes malice is not an acceptable form of civil argument if we wish to ensure that students, faculty and staff are comfortable in a place of scholarship and education. If we educate a generation of students to believe otherwise, we will have jeopardized the very system that so many have made such great sacrifices to defend.

(Please note, just as an aside, the allusion to American military casualties, and the consequent suggestion that the war dead gave all for the Illinois Board of Trustees.)

The Board’s combination of scholarly “civility” and democratic citizenship brings together two threads in the use of this vague, popular term. Besides the above, think of the “Civility Caucus” in Congress, or the regular lamentations in the press at election time that inter-party squabbling is too “coarse” and hostile. In all these cases, the celebration of “civility” conflates the tone of disagreement with disagreement itself, and ultimately suppresses both. As I wrote in a longer essay on the subject in Guernica:

The desire for civil discourse in mainstream politics conceals a deeper desire for a politics of consensus, with no major points of either ideological or practical disagreement. In this view, politics becomes simply a process of managing government bureaucracy; fundamental social conflicts do not exist, only rhetorical ones do.

The other trouble with “civility” is that it is unclear what it means, or if it means anything. In the Salaita case, if his offense is anti-Semitism—a demonstrably untrue charge—than it should be enough for Wise to denounce him for that alone. Instead, as Brian Leiter writes in a piece on the Salaita affair, “incivility” seems here to simply mean bad manners—something nobody should want university administrators adjudicating, nor people losing their livelihoods over. 

Of course, these notions of civility (and again, Wise’s related four D’s—debate, discourse, diversity, and dialogue) as the glue holding campuses together are always summoned by administrators as rhetorical weapons against particularly troublesome campus dissenters. So on the simplest level, “civility” is merely an invention to discredit your opponent’s point of view as irrational. Given the word’s etymological links with “civilize” and “civilization,” this is a mode of attack with which Palestinians like Salaita are likely quite familiar.


A photo of Cary Nelson (at left), uncivilly blocking traffic at the NYU library in 2005, during the graduate assistant strike (via Mondoweiss)

As a graduate student at NYU during a 2005-06 strike by the graduate employee union, we heard a lot of civility talk from university administrators who were hostile to graduate assistant unionization but were unwilling to honestly say why. NYU loved to intimate that our parent union, the UAW, would try to rewrite syllabi, that unionization would forever sully ties between faculty and students, that it was hostile to undergraduates.

As with so many keywords beloved by university administrators— “innovation,” “entrepreneurship,” and so on—there is an opportunistic element of the sacred, or at least the sacrosanct, in these treatments of the university. Once administrators feel threatened, campuses become halls of peaceful contemplation, “safe harbors,” as the Illinois Board of Trustees puts it, from the tumult of the world outside.

For academic workers, via Corey Robin: If you want to join a specific pledge from a discipline or wish to sign the general statement, here are the critical links:

  1. General, non-discipline-specific, boycott statement: 1402 and counting!
  2. Philosophy: 340. Email John Protevi at or add your name in a comment at this link.
  3. Political Science: 174. Email Joe Lowndes at
  4. Sociology: 248.
  5. History: 66.
  6. Chicano/a and Latino/a Studies: 74
  7. Communications: 94
  8. Rhetoric/Composition: 32.
  9. English: 266. Email Elaine Freedgood at
  10. Contingent academic workers: 210.

11.Anthropology: 134

  1. Women’s/Gender/Feminist Studies: 54. Email Barbara Winslow

And if you’re not an academic but want to tell the UI to reinstate Salaita, you can sign this petition. More than 15,000 have.

Stakeholders in Ferguson

As the militarized police occupation of Ferguson, MO, drew comparisons between the midwestern suburb and a “foreign authoritarian country,” the town’s police chief affected a different sort of vocabulary in one of his press conferences. [Put aside, for a moment, the deep naivete of a writer, like this one for, so stymied by violent repression in the United States, God’s country and freest land on earth, that he must invoke “Middle East dictatorships” as the only available comparison for the images on his TV screen.] The Ferguson PD released the name of the uniformed killer of young Mike Brown, the Boston Globe reported,after consulation with “stakeholders”:


Obviously the decision was taken at the highest levels of the local police brass; likely Missouri’s governor and the Department of Justice had a role in the decision. Nothing this police department has done yet smacks of consulation or transparency, so the likely trained recourse to the discourse of”stakeholders” is laughable here. Stakeholder, as I argued in an earlier post, is an austerity keyword that started in business schools and has migrated into the world of municipal government, non-profits, and organizations of all types. The word has financial origins, but it aims to reassure audiences that what they are witnessing is an egalitarian partnership, not a hierarchical enterprise, at work. As I wrote then:

Like other phrases derived from gambling and finance that have migrated into democratic politics—the appropriately gruesome phrase “skin in the game” comes to mind—stakeholder conflates access with rights, obscuring hierarchies of power under the veneer of cooperation.

A determined group of citizens in Ferguson seem undeceived by the laughably thin veneer of cooperation on display there, however.

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 10: Sustainability

 “Sustainable” is an old word, which once referred negatively to an emotional burden one could endure; it also enjoyed popularity as a synonym of “provable,” in a legal sense. These now-obsolete usages gave way to the more general modern meaning, as “capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level.”

For this contemporary definition the Oxford English Dictionary gives mostly economic examples, and indeed “sustainable” was until quite recently used to refer to “steady” growth, with none of the ethical or environmental meanings we now associate with the term. “The Big Three’ s first-quarter production plans look more sustainable now than they did a month ago,” wrote the Wall Street Journal in 1986, referring only to car sales projections, not gas mileage or carbon footprints.

Since the turn of the last century, the word has been used to mean “capable of being maintained” with the implied adverb “environmentally.” As a marketing term [do not click on this link, I am warning you]—and it is ubiquitous as a marketing term— “sustainable” is roughly synonymous with “smart,” suggestive of technological innovation along with a sense of moral conscientiousness and forward thinking. (Moral improvement is deeply embedded in the ideology of “innovation,” as well, as we saw in that keyword essay). “Sustainable” is the cornerstone of what a wince-inducing urbanist blog calls the “New Artisan Economy”: “By producing small quantities of artisanal products in an environmentally friendly way,” this author writes, “the overall economy becomes more sustainable which is a benefit for everyone” [sic].

The contemporary ethical-conservationist meaning of the word “sustainable” tracks with the rise of the noun form “sustainability,” a word almost unknown before the 1980s. BYU’s Corpus of Historical American English, which tracks word usage in popular written media, shows no uses of the term before the 1980s. Google’s ngram offers just a handful, mostly Defense Department memos and other bureaucratic documents lacking public circulation. coinage of “sustainability” correlates with the rise of “sustainable development,” a conservationist critique of development economics that emphasizes the frailty of nature—which the World Bank lovingly calls “natural capital.” Where mid-20th century development theory once advanced economic growth as its ideal, sustainable development offers “sustainability.” Interestingly, this move from “growth” to “sustainability” can be seen in the changes in popular uses of the word “sustainable” itself, from the Wall Street Journal’s 1987 usage to today. 

The United Nations has helped define and popularize the concept in various summits and proclamations: the 1987 Brundtland Report defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The word came into broader circulation in the 1990s, when it was the focus of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, which made “sustainable” a byword of developmentalist ethics and official environmental policy-making. From the Summit’s report, called Agenda 21: 

Principle 1: Human beings are at the centre of concerns for sustainable development.  They are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.


Principle 8: To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.

“Sustainable” has the advantage of being unambiguously good—who wants to be exhaustible?—and invitingly vague. It can accommodate Marxist critics of capitalism and neo-Malthusian doomsday cranks. Mining companies love it. And as you might expect, BP is totally committed to “sustainability,” and has a website to prove it. (In a happy coincidence, sustaining Earth’s ecology and sustaining BP’s shareholder dividends are two sides of the same sustainable coin: “The best way for BP to achieve sustainable success as a company,” their website cheers, “is to act in the long-term interests of our shareholders, our partners and society.”) This combination of ethical straightforwardness in theory—we must be responsible stewards of natural resources for future generations, yes, yes, we all agree—and subjective imprecision in practice is the source of much of its popularity, as scholars have pointed out. And then there is also the temporal lag of counter-evidence: the final proof that our current practices are in fact unsustainable will not come until after we are dead. 

So “sustainability,” like “innovation,” combines literal vagueness with moral certainty. As Keith Douglass Warner and David DeCosse point out in a blog post, “sustainability, much like “efficiency,” does not have an intrinsic meaning.” The question, as they argue, is sustainable for whom, and for how long? One will not get a clear answer by surveying the uses of the word. Duke Energy loves to tweet about “sustainability,” as does McDonalds; McMansions can be “stunning and sustainable.” The Sotheby’s primer on “sustainable eco-mansions” reassures buyers that “making a home sustainable is a scalable effort.” What this means is that the imprimatur of “sustainability” can be bought cheaply or dearly, as one wishes: Energy-star appliances and native-plant gardens at the low end, solar panels and reclaimed barn-lumber siding at the higher price point.

The marketing of “sustainability” exemplifies the framing of structural problems as individual ones, and of practices of citizenship as ones of consumption. Thus the inevitable “sustainability apps.” As used by the self-described “urban sustainability consultant” Warren Karlenzig, writing on the website Sustainable Cities Collective, “sustainability” is a libertarian notion of social change, but one in which the anti-social nihilism of “disruption” is softened by a green touch:

Open data will reduce urban traffic congestion: no longer must cars circle downtown blocks as real-time parking rates and open spaces become transparent. Even more sustainable are those who are deciding to telecommute or use public transit on days when they know that parking costs are spiking or when spaces are unavailable.

Built around a labored, confusing metaphor of cities as beehives, and developers and end users as “swarms” of bees, Karlenzig’s thesis is that a “sustainable” city will be spawned by technological expertise and venture capital: “Our pollen dance,” he writes, “will be our testimonials, use patterns, geo-location, and referrals.” 

As a lifestyle and marketing term, “sustainable” can paradoxically express the same capitalist triumphalism—of an ever-expanding horizon of goods and services, of “growth” without consequences—that the conservationist concept was once meant to critique. “Sustainable development,” fuzzy as it is, was intended to remind us of the limited supply and unequal exploitation of natural resources. But if “sustainable” most literally means an ability to keep on doing something, its popularity as a consumerist value suggests that there is a fine line between “sustainable” and “complacent.” We can “sustain” grossly unequal cities—that is, they won’t fall apart utterly—with Lyft and Airbnb, rather than mass transit and affordable housing. For a while, anyway. Whether we will sustain our desire to live in them is another question.