On so-called 'Civility Pledges' and the abolition of free thought and free speech

I have blogged previously about the glaring problem of lack of tolerance for viewpoint diversity in occupational therapy, and unsuccessful attempts to address the concern.  See here for more details. It is not a new problem in occupational therapy, and now the problem is being demonstrated again.

An important agenda item has been added to the Spring Representative Assembly meeting of the American Occupational Therapy Association - to explore the creation of a 'Civility Pledge' as follows:

On its surface, most people will agree that it is important to be kind and respectful when interacting with others.  However, 'Civility Pledges' have been introduced before in our national government, on many college campuses - and they rarely succeed in gathering much interest or respect.

Why is that?

Most 'Civility Pledges' end up listing speech and behavior that goes far beyond apirational kindness - and wades into the murky territory of mandated 'guiding principles' that people must adhere to - and are then often used as a cudgel by those who would seek to restrict heterodoxical opinions.

Promoting 'Civility Pledges' signals the constriction and death of both free speech and free thought - elements that are required in any intellectually thriving group.

In 2011 there was a rather famous example of a mandatory 'Civility Pledge' at Harvard University - roundly criticized by some faculty there including the former Dean of the College who wrote, "the right to be annoying is precious, as is the right to think unkind thoughts.  Harvard should not condone the sacrifice of right to speech and thought simply because they can be inconvenient in a residential college."  He went on to quote the Supreme Court decision regarding compulsory flag salutes, "Struggles to coerce uniformity of sentiment in support of some end thought essential to their time and country have been waged by many good as well as by evil men. … As first and moderate methods to attain unity have failed, those bent  on its accomplishment must resort to an ever-increasing severity. … Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard."

This kind of action at Harvard has landed the school a consistent place on the list of "worst schools for free speech."  That is not an enviable place for an elite intellectual institution.

Perhaps therapists would be encouraged to sign this new pledge - would there be a list of those who signed?  Would there be public shaming (overtly or covertly) of those who did not sign?  Would the list be aspirational - or would "guiding principles" lead to concrete actions against those who uttered some words or opinions that someone decided to label as "uncivil?"

Who is the judge of civility?  Is it civil to burn cars in the street and shout down opposing opinions, as long as you are on the "right" side of the issue?  Who determines the "right" side of an issue?

I understand the intent of such a motion, and I assume that it is offered with good spirit, but it is the absolutely incorrect way to go about the concern.  Instead, true inclusion, respect, and diversity has to be modeled from the top of an organization and has to be reflected in values and policies and actions.  You don't accomplish 'civility' or 'kindness' by creating a set of rules that people must pledge to - that is so incredibly oppressive and history is replete with examples of leaders who have taken their aspirational good intentions to drive dangerous orthodoxy.

Instead, AOTA and its leadership should promote the kind of intellectual and viewpoint diversity that has been called for over many years.  A thriving intellectual community requires viewpoint diversity and people should be free to speak up and challenge each other without the threat of being labeled 'unkind' or 'uncivil' simply for offering a heterodoxical perspective.  Should people be kind - of course.  But if we start labeling what the guiding principles are to operationalize 'kindness' you start down a very slippery slope - and actually we have seen this play out on college campus - where speakers are shouted down and not allowed to speak because their simple speech and opinions are considered 'hateful' or 'dangerous' or 'un-kind.'

Such policies create the 'safe spaces' where intellectual progress is arrested - where there is never any chance for dialogue, or for mutual understanding, or even for constructive disagreement.  These policies accomplish the abolition of free thought and free speech - something we should not be promoting.

This is not the first assault against viewpoint diversity in occupational therapy.   I encourage all occupational therapists to study this issue deeply - to understand that we can all agree on the need for kindness without promoting 'pledges' that have been criticized and that have failed in other contexts.

We need to move toward embracing viewpoint diversity rather than trying to find ways to label it as 'uncivil.'


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