‘White-Informed Civility’ Is the Latest Target in the Campus Wars

The rules of collegiate debate are also coming under attack as racist and patriarchal.

 By Steve Salerno

From the land that irony forgot—which earlier gave us microaggressions and trigger warnings—comes a new and surprising movement, this time to combat civility. Civility, you see, is a manifestation of the white patriarchy. Spearheading this campaign are a duo of University of Northern Iowa professors, who assert that “civility within higher education is a racialized, rather than universal, norm.”

Their article in the Howard Journal of Communications, “Civility and White Institutional Presence: An Exploration of White Students’ Understanding of Race-Talk at a Traditionally White Institution,” describes a need to stamp out what they call “whiteness-informed civility,” or WIC. The pervasiveness of WIC, it seems, erases “racial identity” and reinforces “white racial power.”

‘White-Informed Civility’ Is the Latest Target in the Campus Wars

Their thesis can be a tad hard to follow, unfolding as it does in that dense argot for which academia is universally beloved. But their core contention is twofold: One, that civility, as currently practiced in America, is a white construct. Two, that in a campus setting, the “woke” white student’s endeavor to avoid microaggressions against black peers is itself a microaggression—a form of noblesse oblige whereby white students are in fact patronizing students of color. Not only that, but by treating black students with common courtesy and expecting the same in return, white students elide black grievances, bypassing the “race talk” that is supposed to occur in preamble to all other conversations. Got it?

Something similar is happening in collegiate debate, where historically high standards of decorum are under siege as manifestations of white patriarchal thinking. So are the factual and logical proofs that debaters are normally expected to offer in arguing their case. Some participants are challenging the format, goals and ground rules of debate itself, in some cases refusing even to stick to the topic at hand. 

Again the driving theory is that all conversations must begin by addressing race. As one top black debater, Elijah J. Smith, writes, debate must, before all else, “acknowledge the reality of the oppressed.” He resists the attempt on the part of white debaters to “distance the conversation from the material reality that black debaters are forced to deal with every day.”

Mr. Smith and his think-alikes seek to transform debate into an ersatz course in Black Studies. In a major 2014 debate finals, two Towson University students sidestepped the nominal resolution, which had to do with restricting a president’s war powers, in order to argue that war “should not be waged against n—as.” Two other students decided that rather than debate aspects of U.S. policy in the Mideast, they’d discuss how the common practices of the debate community itself perpetuate racism. Other recent debates involving black participants have devolved into original rap music.

A few debates have featured profane outbursts and even the hurling of furniture. In one memorable case, when the clock ran out on a student during the championship round, he yelled, “F— the time!”

Increasingly at major competitions, there must be a pre-debate debate on the terms of engagement: whether students are required to cite proof or are free to argue wholly from their feelings and so-called lived experience. Far from being banned or even maligned by debate judges, such antics increasingly win converts and, not coincidentally, matches. Such was in the case with the aforementioned Towson pair.

“Finally, there’s a recognition in the academic space that the way argument has taken place in the past privileges certain types of people over others,” Joe Leeson Schatz, director of speech and debate at Binghamton University, told the Atlantic. “Arguments don’t necessarily have to be backed up by professors or written papers. They can come from lived experience.”

Classroom protocols are under attack as well. A primer titled “Diversity and Inclusiveness in the Classroom,” produced under the auspices of the University of Arizona, asserts that classroom debate “must be an “accessible space,” and that “sharing should be based on one’s own feelings, experiences and perceptions.” Students are pointedly discouraged from rebutting feelings that don’t jibe with verifiable reality. Should someone slip up by introducing a “challenging” fact, however, the text has a prescription: “If a student feels hurt or offended . . . the hurt student can say ‘ouch.’ ”

This rising academic shrine to supposed inclusiveness rests on a pair of dubious pillars. As with the attack on “white civility,” it assumes that students of color wish to talk about nothing but color. Even if that’s true for some, it is not a proclivity that educators should encourage. 

Worse, a cynic might conclude that the unstated goal is to make it possible for students of color to succeed academically by talking about nothing but color, thus allowing race to inflect whole areas of inquiry to which race is irrelevant. Such practices denature the college experience and bespeak a breathtaking level of condescension.

Civility is civility. Debate is debate. Education is education. It does no one any good to bastardize those concepts in service of a brand of inclusion that actually excludes.

Mr. Salerno is an author and journalism professor who lives in Las Vegas.

Appeared in the January 3, 2018, print edition as ‘‘White-Informed Civility’ Is the Latest Target in the Campus Wars.’

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