Academic politics is not electoral politics. It is court politics.
The term “professional courtesy” can be taken two ways. If taken ironically, we are returned to the original meaning of courtesie: that is, the manner in which professional courtiers behaved at the Court of the monarch. They bowed and simpered at one another, danced rondels with each other, spoke lovely, flowery words to one another, all the time scheming about how to stab each other in the back. When the king or queen was around, they did not say crude things like “Why, Your Majesty, that fellow’s plotting against you – you shouldn't trust him any farther than you can throw him!” No, no, no. They dropped hints. They circumlocuted. They made passing references designed to pique the interest (or fear) of the ruler. They told half-truths, raised eyebrows, exchanged glances. And next thing you know, somebody got their head chopped off, and nobody could understand why. And then you had a war. That’s “professional courtesy” for you.
This is, of course, the opposite of democratic politics – indeed, it’s why the latter was invented. That which is courteous is by definition the opposite of demotic: these categories are defined over-against one another. Those to the manor born are not part of the rabble in the street. Likewise, the lace knickers (and garrotes) of the Court are not the rags (and brickbats) of the street. But a democratic regime is designed precisely to allow for conflict that can have an outcome other than bloodshed. It is, for that reason, often verbally rough-and-tumble. People say inflammatory, even scurrilous things; and usually there’s an equal and opposite reaction, if it’s done clumsily.
But the point is not to eliminate conflict. The point is (as Chantal Mouffe puts it) to replace antagonism with agonism. Antagonism means brickbats (or civil war). Agonism means skillful rhetoric; forming alliances (ex. political parties); placing pressure at vulnerable points by presenting the right information at the right time to large groups or individuals. It means using the public (in all its senses) to attain political and social ends.
This is a big part of “civility.” “Civility” is the way that citizens are supposed to behave in civil society (i.e., the civitas, the city). That way is different than courtesy. A civilian citizen can (and indeed should) publically express dissatisfaction; openly form political networks; even tell people exactly what s/he thinks of the opponent. Caning your colleagues on the Senate floor is uncivil. But denouncing them for their policies or methods is not.
It is, however, the height of discourtesy. It is the manner of the court to maintain the façade of tranquility, stability, harmony – because that is how the monarch (the state) wishes to be seen. Conflict amongst the courtiers = conflict in the state. If l’etat c’est moi, then chez moi had better look pretty damn placid. Needless to say it’s not in fact – it’s just breeding conspiracies.
The problem in the US academy (and indeed, in US culture generally) is that its denizens confuse civility with courtesy. The belief seems to be that one is either courteous or one is uncivil. You are either minueting or you are caning somebody. Either you’re sitting with your hands folded in your lap like Pollyanna, or there’s the danger that, at any moment, you’ll start screaming at the top of your lungs (and, indeed, it's a culture that breeds such polarized responses). You’d think otherwise smart people (some of them are even historians of the absolutist state, or public-sphere theorists) would recognize this kind of “category creep.” But not so.
However, it is precisely because everyone is expected to sit quietly with hands in lap that they end up whacking each other. The repressed returns. People mistake conflict for violence and try to quash it. Everybody’s going to get along just fine. And, of course, this is how things had to be at Court.
But Members of Congress from different parties can denounce each other’s policies (and sometimes each other) on the floor, and then go out for drinks afterwards and kid each other about it. Why aren’t they caning each other instead? Because the conflict is already in the open, within the space of the legislature. They know and acknowledge that they have different political philosophies and aims, and sometimes they can leave them at the office. They are colleagues, and they are not on the same side.
What if we had political parties amongst faculty? There are certainly differing interests: between multiculturalists and cultural conservatives; between sciences and humanities; between those who make a lot of money and those who make less; between those who believe in top-down control and those who believe in power-sharing. But to lobby your colleagues openly about a particular policy; or to address such conflicts directly in a departmental meeting or faculty senate is considered unbecoming – unprofessional – dangerous to the body (not to mention one’s career). It does not evince Professional Courtesy. And people are surprised that we have the simultaneous simpering and backstabbing that characterize so many departments – or departments that seem to be getting along just fine until they suddenly disintegrate into lawsuits, defections, and receivership.
So, the model of the professional academic is in some ways the model of the professional courtier: the one who can gain the ear of the chief – and who can keep a plot secret – while making everyone think that nothing is going on. Maybe this is a legacy of the origins of the university as an outgrowth of the monarchy (which is why we have boards of “regents”). Maybe academics like to think of their departments as one, big, happy family, instead of a sometimes-agonistic polis.
I wouldn’t argue for political parties (not necessarily) in English departments. But what if it were OK to (for instance) approach a colleague and say, “I really don’t like the way Jane is handling the department. I know for a fact that she’s lied to my face. And I’d like you to sign this petition to ask her to step down.” This direct approach is very honest; it is, indeed, civil, in the truest sense of the word. It is how a citizen should conduct herself. But to do so within the culture of academia is considered – well, if not treasonous, then certainly discourteous. And, since we mistake courtesy for civility, it is termed (inaccurately) as “uncivil” – when precisely the opposite is the case. Maintaining “a culture of civility” thus becomes, effectively, maintaining the status quo – which was precisely the function of courtesie.
Perhaps this is all another way of acknowledging that the university is not a republic. “Shared governance” is not the same thing as shop democracy. In part, that’s because of the hierarchy (those regents and all). But in part, it’s because the faculty have internalized the ethos of the hierarchy. We are all professionally courteous.
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