Questioning Notions of “Civility” as We Move toward Social Justice and Social Agency By Penny A. Pasque and Brittany Harris

The two of us have spent many hours over the past year and a half discussing the content for a co-authored chapter now in press – the basis for this blog. One important topic of our conversation hinges on Penny’s (2010) research that shows if you do not conform to the dominant discourse in higher education dialogues then your ideas may be disregarded and relegated to the margins of the conversation. In sum, your voice gets silenced either by being skipped over by facilitators and/or not appearing in final policy reports. This sense of disregard happens to people of color, women, and community partners to institutions – no matter what the topic. In addition, this disregard happens when anyone, including people of target and agent identities, talks about moving from social justice to a place of action, advocacy, and social change. So, imagine that you are (or maybe you really are) a Latina graduate student with a voice of advocacy working to make change in higher education in a way that disrupts the status quo; you could be disregarded in a quadruple manner according to this study!

In student affairs, we have noticed that one way to disregard and silence perspectives of 1) people from target identities and/or 2) people with ideas that are not in the majority whether from target or agent identities, is by asking people to conform to “civil” discussion and to display “civility” when engaged in difficult dialogues on campus. This problematic request may be a bit more of an “unconscious” issue – so stick with us while we make this point and see what you think for yourself.

We have noticed people in student affairs asking for “civility” throughout the field and among undergraduates (see chapter for citations). We agree that violence and hazing are not acceptable and need to be addressed. We also support various notions of teamwork. However, forms of student protest – often defined as a lack of “civility” – have been found to support democratic aims, student development, and digital age democracy (Biddix, Somers & Polman, 2009). Further, we argue that basic agreement may not necessarily be the desired goal as it often asks people to conform through mediation and give up some aspects of self or of the argument for the sake of the larger group. In this way, some conceptualizations of civility argue more for the “melting pot” idea of diversity where all elements in the pot melt and fuse together (i.e. assimilation) vs. the “mosaic” concept where people maintain unique identities and also become a rich part of the diverse and larger whole. In addition, “civility” can also be a form of accountability in higher education and can serve as a (self) surveillance technique of control within the current era of conservative modernization and academic capitalism (Gildersleeve et al., 2010); people in power get you/us to monitor each other in terms of conformity and therefore not interrogate the roots of power and oppression.

In addition, the words “civility” and “incivility” also suggest a binary. We ask – are issues and actions around social justice on campus always so binary? Are attitudes and actions so easily demarcated as “good” vs. “evil,” where “civil” is good and “incivility” is evil? Who determines such “good” values? What should be “agreed” upon in terms of civility and by whom?
By way of example, if you read the Twilight (Meyers, 2005) books or watched the movies, were you “Team Jacob” or “Team Edward” (if at all)? The characters, and behaviors of these characters, were complex as they connected numerous issues across race, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, sexual orientation, indigenous culture, post-colonialism, and more. Neither Jacob nor Edward necessarily embodied pure good or pure evil, yet Twilighters (not limited to tweens) created a false dichotomy as though you had to choose which man to celebrate and which to reject.

We see civility in a similar manner – the labeling of certain language or nonverbal behavior as “civil” limits the parameters of verbal and nonverbal behavior to dominant paradigms and perspectives originally defined by people with agent identities. It is used to regulate discourse. We use our own selves as examples. When in a heated conversation, Penny’s arms and hands will probably become expressive as she talks; they will flail around in a descriptive manner and she is often asked if she knows American Sign Language because of this non-verbal behavior. Penny also comes from a family (½ Sicilian and ½ Italian) that yells, so the raising of voices is not uncommon nor is it taken as a personal attack. When Brittany is in a heated conversation, she often gets categorized as the “angry Black woman – ABW” if her voice is even just mildly raised about a controversial issue – particularly around the topic of race. If Brittany’s hair, which is natural, is in curly coils or straightened with a flat iron on that day, then she is perceived differently based on her appearance. And, what if one of us sheds a few tears? This verbal and nonverbal behavior certainly does not fit within traditional “civil” dialogue as defined by dominant culture, may create dissonance in the listener if they are not familiar with these forms of animated communication, and there are professional and personal consequences to the speaker if we do not conform. It is messy.

Dalia Rodriguez (2011) points out, “silence and silencing are gendered, raced and classed. People of color are often silenced by the dominant majority who maintain racial hegemony” (p. 112). As a strategy for survival, people of color have developed what W.E.B Du Bois (1903) terms “double consciousness” where they/we need to understand the perspective of both agents and targets. “Masks of survival,” or masking inner selves to not show inner feelings, has also been a way to defend against racist educational institutions and serve as a means of self-protection (Montoya, 2000; Rodriguez, 2011). Agents are only required to understand the perspective of agents; understanding of people in various target identities across race, ethnicity, nationality, class, ability, sexual orientation, size, age, religion, etc. is optional. Yet, we have heard white people say, “I don’t want you to wear a mask” as a way to try to include student affairs colleagues of color in the dialogue. But, is that invitation genuine and realistic? Can Brittany really drop the mask if her current behavior is already defined as an ABW even though anger is a legitimate response to marginalization (Linder & Rodriguez, 2012)? Or, will this be identified as a form of “incivility” where she will be disregarded and silenced in the conversation? Will the listener invite the mask to be dropped but then feel a sense of dissonance or uneasiness if the mask is truly dropped? Are we, in student affairs, truly changing the climate and culture of the academy toward inclusion – or just inclusion defined by dominant notions of “civility”?
Again, we ask, whose “civility” are we talking about when we use this word? By using “civility” as an organizing rule, we automatically exclude comments and voices from public view that fall outside dominant notions of civility. Notably, can there even be dissention to the word – because who would argue against civility and for incivility? Asked another way, who are we un/consciously including or excluding through what we may perceive as benign language? We argue that language does matter and, yes, language is messy.
Our colleague Karen Myers (2010) asks us not to think about inclusion, but to consider “Have you excluded anyone today?” (p. 16). We ask you – and ourselves – who have I excluded through my verbal language and nonverbal behavior? And, to embrace what we may define as “messy” and uncomfortable in dialogue in order to truly engage with people different than ourselves so we may move from understanding notions of social justice to working as agents of social change.

Note: This material originated from a chapter by Penny and Brittany in Reflection in Action: A Guidebook for Faculty and Student Affairs Professionals, edited by Kimberly Kline, to be published by Stylus Publishing (July 2013)
Biddix, J. P., Somers, P. A., & Polman, J. L. (2009). Protest reconsidered: Identifying democratic civic engagement learning outcomes. Innovative Higher Education. 34. 133-147.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk: Essays and sketches. New York, NY: Bantam Classic.

Gildersleeve, E. R.., Kuntz, A., Pasque, P. A., & Carducci, R. (2010). The role of critical inquiry in (re)constructing the public agenda for higher education: Confronting the conservative modernization of the academy. The Review of Higher Education. 34(1). 85-121.

Linder, C. & Rodriguez, K. L. (2012). Learning from the experiences of self-identified women of color activists. Journal of College Student Development. 53(3). 383-397.

Meyers, S. (2005). Twilight: The Twilight Saga. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.

Montoya, M. (2000). Silence and silencing: Their centripetal and centrifugal forces in legal communication, pedagogy and discourse. University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform. 33(263). 1-62.

Myers, K. A. (2010, Nov-Dec). A new vision for disability education: Moving from the add-on. About Campus. 15-21.

Pasque, P. A. (2010). American higher education, leadership, and policy: Critical issues and the public good. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Rodriguez, D. (2011). Silence as speech: Meanings of silence for students of color in predominantly White classrooms. International Review of Qualitative Inquiry. 4(1). 111-144.

Penny Pasque is associate professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies and the Center for Social Justice at the University of Oklahoma. Contact her at or follower her on twitter @pennypasque. Brittany Harris received her master’s degree in student affairs from the University of Oklahoma and is an Upward Bound Math and Science Counselor at the University of Pennsylvania. Contact her at or follow her on twitter @blaniceh.

One thought on “Questioning Notions of “Civility” as We Move toward Social Justice and Social Agency By Penny A. Pasque and Brittany Harris

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  1. Thank you so much for raising these important questions about the concept of civility. On the one hand, I like the idea of civility in social justice education, to the extent that it acknowledges the inevitability of conflict and sets us up to find ways to engage rather than retreat from it. But like any loaded word, I think hegemonic definitions of civility – generally reflective of white, non-poor or working class, Christian values, to name a few – carry the most cache, and are the standards against which we’re all expected to measure ourselves. For me, civility absolutely includes expression of strong emotions and direct challenge, which are generally not a part of those hegemonic definitions. So civility is an area where I think we always have to be using our critical lenses, to interrogate the parts that reproduce oppression without losing the parts that add value to our discourse.


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