In a letter to the University of Connecticut community on Nov. 8, 2014, President Susan Herbst shares her thoughts on an incident of racist and sexist hate speech perpetrated by the fraternity Pi Kappa Alpha against the sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha.
Or, rather, President Herbst expresses her dismay at what she euphemistically calls a “dispute” that “involved” the two organizations. It is up to the readers to conduct their own research before they may surmise that the men of PKA harassed the women of AKA, and not, say, vice versa. President Herbst closes with a rallying call to restore civility; but while civility may seem a laudable goal at first blush, it is utterly misguided.
It is generally understood that civility relates to politeness and courtesy, a formality ostensibly to be observed for the sake of harmony in a functional society. In our imperfect world, however, the unfortunate implication is that people may gloss over deeply held opinions and core attitudes to achieve nothing but a veneer of social acceptability.
In the face of intolerance and other injustices, civility is at best an ersatz placeholder for true understanding and respect, and at worst an active barrier and diversion from the same – in other words, an institutional form of social control. This attitude is in direct opposition to what our goals as a university community should be: to address challenging moral issues head-on, to struggle with their implications, and ultimately find and strive to enact a real resolution.
This is no petty hang-up on word choice: the language we use reflects the narratives to which we hew, and these narratives are the framework to which we fit our experiences. These narratives define how we interpret the world, and therefore how we choose to act every day.
The language of “civility” is the language of covering up problems, of denying that they exist. And we have seen this denial manifest time and again under President Herbst’s tenure: the gross mishandling of sexual assault claims on campus, the casual dismissal of graduate students’ concerns regarding working conditions, and now this “disagreement” between Greek organizations on campus .
In her latest letter, President Herbst refers to a “verbal confrontation that included insults based on race and gender.” Why go through such awkward contortions of language, if not to downplay wrongdoing on campus and evade negative publicity? A clear and direct statement on the university’s intolerance for “racist and sexist hate speech,” simply put, would have cut straight to the heart of the matter.
It is not surprising that immature students – particularly white fraternity boys – would debase themselves to the point of hurling racist and sexist insults or epithets. Truly, the only surprise is President Herbst’s apparent shock at the incident, though whether it is genuine shock — or merely an affect, for the sake of propriety — is up for question.
For a provocative yet highly nuanced and insightful examination of issues concerning fraternities on campus, I highly recommend Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in the March 2014 issue of The Atlantic.
President Herbst would do well to read this piece, and take it to heart.
In an eerie parallel to the ongoing national debacles of racial and sexual violence in Fergusson, the University of Virginia, and elsewhere around the country, we are finding that it is not civility that we are lacking here at UConn. Instead, it is the courage and compassion to face our own demons and admit fault, and start taking steps to improve.
Ignorance and denial provide the cover for hatred, injustice, and even abuse to persist unabated. It is well past time for our community to reexamine its priorities, and decide between honestly and openly dealing with the many problems we face, or brushing them aside to reduce the appearance of conflict.
Is President Herbst — and are the rest of us — up for the challenge?
Michael Hutson is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UConn, and a fellow of the university’s Outstanding Scholar Program. He currently resides in Willimantic.