Posted by: Richard Schwier | June 15, 2011

Civility – can’t we get along?

Last night, the EdTech Posse had a wonderful conversation. One of our dirty little secrets is that we mainly get together whenever we can to talk about whatever is on our minds, and record whatever happens to share with others. It’s intentionally unstructured.

Well, the conversation last night started with Dean’s encounter with John Gormley (a local conservative talk show host) about an open letter Dean posted to his students where he commented about the absurdity of assigning a single mark to represent their learning. Then we moved onto other things, and at the end talked about the hostility of public rhetoric around the recent job actions and negotiations by Saskatchewan Teachers. Funny how these conversations spiral in on themselves—the bookends of our session both centred on the unfortunate tendency in media (broadcast media and social media alike) to polarize, attack, vilify, and even ridicule other people or their positions.

It got me thinking about Rodney King. Remember Rodney? He is the African American fellow who was pulled over by police in Los Angeles in 1991 and beaten, purportedly for resisting arrest. Somebody videotaped the incident, and it went viral, or at least as viral as it could twenty years ago. And Los Angeles went up in flames when the officers involved in the beating were acquitted in May, 1992. It really was a scary time. My kids were living in Los Angeles, and so I went to be with them. The city was under curfew, and there was a strong military presence from the National Guard. You haven’t lived until you’ve been on a walk with your kids to the video store, and passed by armoured vehicles in the parking lot, and beneath army snipers on the roof of the store. My kids thought it was cool. I didn’t.

How did things settle down? I’m not 100% sure they entirely have, but one thing helped a lot. A kind, humble, and civil Rodney King went on television and made the most remarkable statement. He haltingly and nervously said, “Can we all get along?”

What a simple and meaningful statement.

Back to Gormley and Saskatchewan teachers. During Gormley’s lead in rant, I was really steamed by the inflammatory and belittling statements he made about Dean’s ideas, and by association, Dean himself (he had no intention of actually talking to Dean–just to attack a couple of points in his blog post). Then I heard his tone change when Dean surprised him and phoned in to discuss the issue with him. I wondered about the initial lack of civility, and the subsequently civil conversation they started to have. I think the tone changed abruptly because:

1. Gormley was now confronted by the person he was trying to discredit; and,
2. Dean was civil and open, and invited a discussion of the issue, not a fight about it.

We have also seen many media attacks carried out on Saskatchewan teachers, including some attack ads that seemed ill-advised, not just inaccurate. These kinds of approaches don’t invite meaningful conversation, and they serve to polarize the public and possibly do damage to the reputation of teachers that can linger for a long time. And how does that serve the education of our children? What kind of example does it set for them?

I think all of this underscores the need for all of us who embrace social media to promote civil discourse. It starts with us.

We don’t have to agree with each other, and in fact we can all benefit from open conversations when we have vehement disagreements. But we don’t have to attack. We don’t have to simplify our discussions and reduce our points to cleverly phrased uppercuts. We don’t have to win.

We can listen. We can ask others to listen. We can walk away and refuse to engage in conversations that turn ugly. And we can say that’s why we’re doing it.

I was astonished when I first heard the courage and forgiveness spoken by Rodney King. I was proud to know somebody like Dean Shareski, who refused to be sucked into a confrontation, and instead invited open dialogue.

It was, for me, an important example that I will carry with me. I’m going to do my very best to be civil and open, to listen before I speak.

Can’t we get along?

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Responses

  1. I have been having similar thoughts lately, especially after having seen Eli Pariser’s speech on Ted.com about the so-called “filter bubble”. He says that we tend to now only see things customized to our tastes and philosophies based on our browsing habits. Then I heard Krista Tippett’s conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah on her “On Being” podcast about why people have trouble with civility when faced with things or people they disagree with. He states that back in the day, you couldn’t instantly hit a “send” button – you had to take time to write, then find an envelope, then a stamp, then look up the address and possibly someone to advise you to “sleep on it for a night” if you wanted to complain via text. Now, someone can just go with his or her immediate gut feeling, and never have the benefit of having the person they are attacking in front of them to see their reactions. When I put these two concepts together, I find that I am left wondering, as you seem to be, about how we can ever get back to civility. It certainly doesn’t provide that Jerry Springer-like entertainment everyone has grown so fond of lately, but maybe we could actually get to “real” issues rather than rants.

    You’ve got me thinking :-)

    • Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment, Hillary. I haven’t seen/heard either of the resources you mentioned, so I’m looking forward to taking them in. What an excellent thought about older technologies causing us to be slower, and therefore more circumspect before we communicate. I have a rule for myself: whenever I’m writing a note to someone I disagree with at night (think ex-spouse) I always keep it overnight and send it during the middle of the day. It has saved me from myself more than once.

  2. What a terrific illustration of what we should all strive to do. It’s hard to confront people sometimes, but you have just shown why we should confront, sometimes, and more importantly, HOW to confront. I only ‘know’ yourself and Dean from Twitter, but I’m terribly proud to say that much. :)

    • Thanks, Lisa! Dean’s a master of considerate, but direct, conversation. He has a backbone and a great sense of humour, and very little in the way of ego involvement. It’s a good mixture, isn’t it. Good to see you in my blog space. I use it more often as a professional bulletin board than a personal blogging space, so I’m always grateful when one of my twitter buddies drops in to say hello!

  3. Good stuff, @hillaryml.

    Recently, the advice to be given when things get hot is, sleep on it. In essence, it is an attempt to encourage people off the edge or at least away from the send button.

  4. Hey! Didn’t know if you heard about a new book on the topic, but the author, Juan Williams, was on “The Daily Show” last night promoting it. It’s called “Muzzled: An Assault on Honest Debate”. I haven’t picked it up yet, but I liked what the guy had to say on the show.

    • Thanks, Hillary! I’ll check it out. Anyone who appears on “The Daily Show” must have something to say that’s worth listening to!


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