Category Archives: Civil Discourse

Once Upon a Time

I was starting my sophomore year at The College of William and Mary in the fall of 1981 and would have, in my earnest, innocent way, identified as a feminist. That year, the annual speakers’ forum opened with a debate about the Equal Rights Amendment, featuring Phyllis Schlafly, founder of STOP ERA, and Karen DeCrow, former President of the National Organization for Women, a group which advocated for passage of the ERA, among other things.*

I have a clear memory of sitting on the bleachers in William and Mary Hall listening to these two women debate each other, something that, in and of itself was a bit unusual in my experience thus far. I suppose it was seen as “women’s issue” so women were permitted to talk about it. I don’t remember much, except being surprised to find that Schlafly was thoughtful, even compelling, in her beliefs, (despite disagreeing vehemently with everything she said) and that both women remained civil to each other throughout the evening. No name calling, no shouting over each other.

The report (see page 2) from The Flat Hat, the college paper, indicates the audience mostly sided with DeCrow, wearing ERA Now and .59¢ buttons, the latter referencing the fact that, at the time, women made 59 cents to every dollar a man made. That gap has closed, and is now, according to the US Department of Labor, 83.7 cents. I discovered that there is a “holiday” in March each year to commemorate the fact that it takes women 15 months to earn what men do in 12 months. This gap, of course, widens when it comes to women of color.

Political issues aside, I titled this post “once upon a time” because there *was* a time, in the past, when people who disagreed could be on the same stage together to describe and defend their ideas in a civil way, to give listeners a chance to hear and evaluate those ideas and use them to form their own opinions, perhaps becoming more nuanced by being exposed to the other side. Civil discourse seems to be a thing of the past, and I am not sure it is something we can get back.

*I am grateful to The College of William and Mary’s digital archive for access to The William and Mary News and The Flat Hat. I was able to confirm the date of the debate and read the follow up review to refresh my sometimes faulty memory.

If You Can’t Say Something Nice…

Even as I start typing this, I realize it’s probably a waste of bandwidth; after all, I’m not saying anything we don’t all know: the Internet tends to be a pretty uncivil place. In fact, it seems to breed incivility as though it is a mark of honor to be the first to post something negative or ugly.

But, as I read the first comment on this Lifehacker post about making ice cream in coffee cans, I heard my mother’s voice speaking through the ether: if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all. This was usually in response to something mean I had said about my older sister or perhaps a smart alecky reply to a simple question. Now, it echoes loudly as we live in a world that seems to celebrate saying mean stuff for no apparent reason other than because you can.

This ice cream quote is a pretty minor example, but it demonstrates that even the most inoffensive posts can garner negative comments, a chance to be sarcastic the way I was with my mother. A friend on Facebook posted something about Garrison Keillor and I was surprised at the vehemence and strong language used by one of his friends to describe Keillor. Just ugly, ugly language and there was no way to avoid it as I scanned my news feed. It was like your crazy uncle who said inappropriate things at the dinner table and then looked around grinning to see if anyone would call him on it.

I worry that these every day examples make us less sensitive to the larger examples. For instance, the news this week revolved around the Cheerios commercial that features a mixed race couple. The YouTube version had to have comments turned off because they were so ugly and racist. I find myself wondering if these really were people who were against mixed marriage or if the hate speech was just more of the same Internet invective without any real beliefs behind it…a chance to say bad words and ugly things because there isn’t any accountability?

I worry that we have come to expect and accept that this is part of the world and I don’t have any answers for how to solve it: unfriend people? reply back with kindness? engage in constructive dialog? I’m sorry to say that I have a sense that none of those things will work but simply up the ante on the original poster: you though that was bad, I can be much worse!

I wish I had a nice closing paragraph with the tidy solution…anyone? anyone? Have you dealt with this in some productive way or do you just press delete or unfriend?

The Wisdom of John Adams

The horrid events in Arizona are the talk of the Sunday morning news shows. We all pray for Gabrielle Giffords and her family and for all Americans and do hope that it may be the moment when we look for a new way to work together where we can have honest disagreements with others without having to demonize or destroy them.

I’m reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams and I have new found respect for this great American leader. I find myself marking the pages with quotes and ideas that are still relevant today. He would have been very sad about the state of civility in our country because respect was essential for a successful government:

We may please ourselves with the prospect of free and popular governments. But there is great danger that those governments will not make us happy. God grant they may. But I fear that in every assembly, members will obtain an influence by noise not sense. By meanness, not greatness. By ignorance, not learning. By contracted hearts, not large souls…There is one thing, my dear sir, that must be attempted and most sacredly observed or we are all undone. There must be decency and respect, and veneration introduced for persons of authority of every rank, or we are undone. In a popular government, this is our only way.

Now More Than Ever

It has taken me nearly two weeks to muster the energy to write this post.  You see, I’m a Unitarian Universalist, and on Sunday, July 27, a gunman walked into the packed Knoxville church and opened fire.  Two died and seven others were wounded.  A letter found in his truck indicated that he harbored hatred for liberals and gays who he perceived as preventing him for getting a job.  Subsequent reports revealed a deeply troubled man who planned to keep shooting until the police came and killed him.  It would be easy to write him off as another crazy person who had somehow gotten his hands on a gun.  And, even as I mourn for the Knoxville church, I know this isn’t the worst mass shooting nor is it the last.  But this one hit pretty close to home for me and not just because it was directed towards people of my faith.  Another reason is because it also reminds us that promoting civil discourse is one of the most important things we can do as we send our students out into both the real and virtual worlds.

That was the theme of an article I wrote–“Don’t Feed the Trolls: Using Blogs to Teach Civil Discourse“–for Learning & Leading With Technology that appeared in the May 2008.  I’m in the process of getting permission to put the article on my website so for now you need to be an ISTE member to read it.  Why is this important to this story?  Because I, at least, had my head in the sand when it came to the rhetoric of hate that has been directed towards liberals.  Evidently, joking about killing liberals and issuing liberal hunting licenses is fair game for cable news commentators, radio entertainers, and conservative bloggers.  I wrote about this in my personal blog:

Really?  Someone, anyone, finds it funny to talk about killing people like me because of my political views.  I might find Russ Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly offensive but I would never wish their death.

And I found myself wondering how we got here…where hateful rhetoric like this is not only accepted but seemingly encouraged.  While I wouldn’t want to blame people like Sean Hannity for what happened last Sunday, his ongoing war against liberals certainly didn’t help.  For someone who is mentally unbalanced, these relenting attacks become an underlying soundtrack to a tragic life and offer up an easy target.  Tom Friedman says that while he was sleeping, the world got flat.  While I was sleeping, the world got ugly.

We can DO something about this, folks.  We can talk to kids about how words–whether spoken or written–really matter.  I’m sure there are liberals out there who are also guilty of negative rhetoric although my own bias might make it more difficult for me to really hear them.  As you head into the school year and start getting your kids on the web, please take the time to include civil discourse in your conversations with them.

Students Call Officials’ Homes When School Isn’t Called Off For Snow – News-

Students Call Officials’ Homes When School Isn’t Called Off For Snow – News-

So, the MSNBC story and it gives some better detail.  The most important piece, probably, that wasn’t covered in the AP story was that this wasn’t the first phone call:

But recently, this role has resulted in dozens of phone calls to his home, many from students and some in the middle of the night. Other students have sent profane e-mails to the administration.

So, now we get a better view of the situation at least from the administrator’s wife.  Interesting media literacy lessons, here.  Check different stories.  Wait for a day before drawing too many conclusions.