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(Un)civil discourse

Casual staff respond to management accusations of 'bullying'.

Troy Heffernan and Lynn Bosetti’s ‘Incivility: the new type of bullying in higher education’ in the Cambridge Journal of Education (2021) is an excellent example of bad scholarship. For this self-serving article to have progressed through peer-review is not just disappointing but dangerous to higher education. More frustrating is the fact that Anna Patty of the Sydney Morning Herald provided the authors a greater platform than they deserve by publishing ‘Smart bullies’ emerge in universities in new workplace trend’ on 19 April. 

Confusion lies at the heart of Heffernan and Bosetti’s article. The authors open with the false equivalence that ‘incivility is bullying’. Confusingly, however, the authors and interviewees move on later in the article to discuss bullying and incivility as separate behaviours. This conceptual confusion is never resolved, and the authors’ contention seems to be that bullying and incivility could be considered the same because they make recipients feel bad. The key difference is intent. Bullying is intended to cause harm. Incivility is behaviour that does not conform to certain norms.

Besides the article’s flawed conceptual foundation, there are many other problems. The methodology employed is not really a methodology at all. Rather than striving for a representative sample (the bare minimum for social science research), they drew on connections to solicit twenty participants. Bosetti herself is also a dean, one of the many conflicts of interest ingrained across the article. Indeed, the authors take the interviewees at their word, demonstrating an alarming lack of critical distance. Having assisted in the dismissal of thousands of university workers, deans have something to gain by claiming victimhood. 

Gallingly, the authors fail to acknowledge the grossly unequal power structures within universities, placing ‘top down’ bullying at the same level as so-called ‘upward’ incivility. In fact, the authors suggest upward incivility is worse because it is allegedly more common and harder to identify. These are bold claims for a study that rests on interviews exclusively with university executives and a misunderstanding of what bullying is. Even if we accept deans’ claims that they have been victims of incivility, it is not the case that employees who disagree with them are bullies. One also has to wonder how widespread this ‘crisis’ of incivility really is given the considerable power that university executives have over their subordinates’ careers. 

In the workplace, policing of incivility is a method to redirect workers’ frustrations into ‘proper’ channels, which are often bureaucratic cul-de-sacs. Confronted with ‘civilised’ processes that tend to bury complainants’ issues instead of resolving them, it is unsurprising that employees become uncivil when confronted with poor working conditions. Incivility might get better results than a meeting with HR and line managers. (As an aside, anyone who has dealt with HR departments during disputes will find Heffernan and Bosetti’s recommendation that HR departments need to be better equipped to detect and police uncivil behavior amusing.)

Crucially, the civil/uncivil dichotomy carries racist baggage that Heffernan and Bosetti seem resistant to address. Colonial logic rests on the racist assumption that the ‘uncivilised’ can be denied rights that the ‘civilised’ take for granted. Not contained to a grim, distant past, this logic still finds expression in many modern institutions, including universities. Bryan Mukandi and Chelsea Bond, in particular, have provided powerful insights into the many ways (including notions of civilised academic discourse) the Australian academy disciplines Black thought and behavior. 

‘Incivility: the new type of bullying in higher education’ is not newsworthy and remarkable only for its weakness as a piece of scholarship and the troubling managerial attitudes that it highlights. The suggestion that incivility and insubordination in universities must be more strictly policed is troubling for those with the least power within these institutions.