Where Has Civility Gone?

In a world in which rhetoric has taken a downhill turn, President Michael Driscoll discusses how IUP’s students, in the face of a negative incident, have taken the high road.

Safe spaces and trigger warnings on college campuses—you’ve read about them often in the last two months, which just happen to be, coincidentally, right in the middle of what many believe to be the meanest presidential campaign in recent U.S. history.

I wonder if we would be talking about safe spaces and trigger warnings at all—if they would be necessary—if the tone and tenor of public interaction were, simply, more polite.

And, I worry.

Young people are shaped by their environment, and it seems as though the Jerry Springer approach to problem solving and discourse now defines how we resolve differences.

We Americans should employ our precious right of free speech to come together and address the challenges we face. But far too often, free speech is invoked in the lesser cause of justifying name-calling, petty bickering, and the lowest of unreasoned ad hominem attacks on people rather than in protecting a debate about their ideas.

The genesis of safe spaces and trigger warnings is the basis of civility with which we are all familiar.  In our daily lives we appreciate and understand when someone says “please sit down, what I have to tell you won’t be easy for you to hear.” But safe spaces and trigger warnings as implemented and debated have often been reduced to caricatures of caring—a way to mollycoddle weak people who can’t bear the truth.

Frank discussion is important and useful, but what coarsened our culture? When did the culture of disrespect overshadow mutual respect? When did cheap sound bites overtake rich debate? Is it the instantaneous nature and faux anonymity of social media? Has the desire to create a social media trend driven a need for showmanship over substance?

Strife, fear, and heartache abound throughout our history, but through my nostalgic view of the past, I imagine that a sense of decorum and decency once prevailed in public forum and debate. At least until I read the accounts of debates in the antebellum United States or the rhetoric justifying the holocaust.  We must teach our students how to rise above the proclivity, exacerbated by today’s technology, to demean and belittle.

Some of you may have read the Spring 2016 edition of IUP Magazine, in which we explored issues related to race on campus. Our campus community, indeed, experienced an ugly incident last December. When a racist SnapChat photo was transmitted, many people were rightfully outraged, and I’m sad to say it was not an isolated case of prejudice.

But, that outrage did not reach a low level. In fact, it served as a catalyst for taking action. Since December, our community has come together in many ways over this issue. In presentations about our newly completed diversity climate study, a day-long summit in which we discussed these issues, at an open meeting in Punxsutawney, and in a wide variety of other settings, we have talked about sensitive issues, but the discourse has been respectful.  Further, I’ve seen at least one group of students reach out to our local law enforcement community to help bridge gaps. Such progress calls for candor on all sides of the table, and by all reports, that candor has not broken the barriers of civility.

That impresses me. I’ve seen our students, faculty, and staff agree and respectfully disagree—without talking over one another, without interrupting one another, without name calling, without shouting, without dirt digging, and without a cad’s put down. And no trigger warnings were required.

It happens here at IUP. It can happen elsewhere, too.

I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that watching our students tackle these issues has been a real joy, and while I worry about what’s to come in our world, our kids give me hope.