Reading, Writing, Arithmetic...and Civility

Photo of Kevin Zook, PhD, Dean of the School of EducationBy Kevin Zook, PhD
Dean of the School of Education

A woman goes out with a friend to a public restaurant for breakfast, a quiet morning of coffee and conversation. She is soon noticed by others who utilize various forms of “social” media to convene an angry mob to surround and harass her. Why is she targeted for such treatment? She dares to be an African-American woman who publicly articulates political views that challenge the status quo. A quiet breakfast incites an angry mob thanks to ideological intolerance and the ability to attract other like-minded bigots quickly and easily via “social” media.

For all our much ballyhooed “social” media technology, the breakfast incident suggests that we still have a long way to go in our civil treatment of each other in the public square and that our “social” media may actually contribute to anti-social behavior. With my hand-held cell phone, I can choose to exchange messages, pictures, songs, and videos with an infinite number of close friends or absolute strangers. I can respond to them (or not) solely on my time and on my terms. I can ignore a message, delete anything that “offends” me or challenges my beliefs, or send a nasty reply, cowardly hiding behind the mask of technology, that I would ordinarily never say to another person—in person. I can be in the physical presence of others but withhold personal attention if incoming text messages, Facebook pics, and Twitter feeds are more interesting than my present companions. I’m in complete control of what I see, hear, and think about, and the company I keep. 

“Social” media? Hardly. The essence of true social interaction is give and take, civil responses, compromise, reading nonverbal cues, and sensitivity to the other. The media, of course, are neither “social” nor “anti-social.” Those are simply characteristics of the people who use them. The ugly side of human nature has always been there. “Social” media simply gives the ugly side more tools to be...well...uglier.

As an educator, I worry about the lessons taught to children by anti-social media. If I can dismiss people and ideas easily through “delete” or “ignore,” can I also easily dismiss a speaker with whom I disagree by preventing her from entering a building or shouting her down as she speaks? Does the sense of cyber control children learn via anti-social media eventually generalize to their interactions with real persons in real time? Should it? 

The problem with deleting, ignoring, controlling, and sanitizing all the ideas that enter my personal orbit is that it allows me to burrow deeply into the comfortable cocoon of my own unchallenged assumptions. In a representative republic founded in the crucible of open debate of radical (for the time) political ideas, this is dangerous stuff. The only tie that binds us together as a society and prevents our sinking into bristly tribalism is our Constitution, words on paper that mean nothing unless people of good will choose to honor and abide by them. But this profound act of civil obedience surely demands that we talk with each other in our continued efforts to figure out what those words mean and how they should be applied some 230 years after they were first written and ratified. Such conversations require sustained attention and thoughtful listening and responding—the sort of social engagement that cannot happen with prickly, elbow-throwing 280-character tweets.

Civil political discourse is critical to our national survival, and “social” media doesn’t seem to be helping. What if our schools were to teach children strategies for engaging in civil discourse when they encounter political ideologies that conflict with their own? What if we were to teach children to ask follow-up questions, listen carefully for answers, to be curious about what others think, to express their own beliefs cogently and politely, and to search actively for points of agreement and potential compromise—not to dismiss (or delete) people out of hand simply because at first glance their ideas may cause us some cognitive or emotional dissonance? Such skills and dispositions do not happen by accident. They need to be taught and nurtured deliberately and systematically. Actively teaching civil political discourse to our children is as important now—perhaps more important—as teaching them reading, writing, and arithmetic (or STEM, or foreign languages, or whatever the curriculum du jour might be). But can we get them to put down their cell phones long enough to pay attention?

Any of us—age, skin color, religion, sexual identity, or political stripe notwithstanding—should be able to go out for a quiet breakfast without inciting mob harassment aided and abetted by anti-social media. With some measure of civility and media in the hands of people who possess both social skills and social values, someday that just may be possible.