The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) discusses the spread of “civility programs” among American colleges and universities, mentioning a passage from my own university’s Code of Student Conduct. In defense of Tulane, I’d say that our civility requirement is merely fatuous, expressing an expectation that students will “speak and act with scrupulous respect for the human dignity of others.” I don’t know how anyone could tell whether or not a student’s respect is “scrupulous,” but the vagueness of the injunction would, I hope, make violations difficult to identify and enforce. By contrast, Harvard actually asks students to sign a “kindness pledge” promising to “sustain a community characterized by inclusiveness and civility,” and reportedly posts the names of those who have and have not signed in the entryways of residence halls. Former Harvard Dean Harry Lewis denounces this as “public shaming.”
What’s wrong with college civility campaigns? I’m in favor of politeness and I think that learning that ad hominem arguments are fallacious is a legitimate part of an education. But moral crusades to get students to watch what they say can also further narrow the rigidly conformist intellectual culture of modern universities. And precisely because that culture is so conformist today, accusations of “incivility” and failure to be “inclusive” will inevitably be leveled mainly against those who disagree with prevailing assumptions.