Schools as Incubators of Civility: Beyond Silencing, Ignoring, and Demonizing the Other

The current climate of public and political discourse in the United States continues to trouble me, and I have to wonder what we can do in education to help. Yet, if we are going to do something about a problem, it is necessary to define or at least describe the problem. In this instance, there is more than one issue, but I’m beginning to focus on the nature of discourse and how we treat, think about, and interact with people who have significantly different beliefs and values from our own. My concern is that we are using media, policies, and laws with the goal of power more than truth, understanding, or even justice. I see four especially strong signs that this is indeed the case.

Silence the Other

One sign is that there is a seemingly growing effort to silence those who disagree with us. We want to use laws or whatever other means to make sure that the other person does not even get a chance to speak or respond. There is limited interest in genuine understanding or discourse. We want the other to “shut up and sit down.” We pursue this tactic even if it eats away at the constitutional rights of others, not considering the larger implications. Our focus is to win in the moment.

Ignore the Other

We do whatever we can to ignore the other because we don’t want the media or any significant group of people to hear from the other. Perhaps there is fear that the other will convince people, and since the goal is to “win”, there is sometimes the goal of ignoring toward that end. In fact, some will argue that the other is not even worthy of acknowledgement. “Don’t entertain such stupidity with your attention,” some might argue.

Demonize the Other

Perhaps even more troubling is the growing trend to demonize the other (not even just the position held by the other). By doing this, we also dehumanize the person. We frame the person and the person’s position as intolerant, bigoted, extremist, or whatever other language diminishes the sense that this person should be respected, granted the rights described in the constitution, or even granted treatment of basic human dignity.  We define the other person as a “killer” or “defender of killers.” We do whatever we can to pair the person with the most evil characters that we can think of in past or recent history.

Personal Attacks

This is the norm for political discourse in much of social media today. Issues are not debated as much as people are demeaned, minimized, demonized, and mocked. Sarcasm trumps logical discourse. One liners are sought more than insight. Black and white positions drive people to draw a clear line in the sand, and if you are not on my side of the line, you are an evil person. Sometimes it is direct, but other times it is done subtly. We write or say it with a cool tone so as it make it sound like we are being more objective. I see this in countless media headlines when clearly biased reporters are framing the headlines to represent their ideology and values more than to objectively report on the news.

How Can Schools Help?

Of course, not everyone does these all the time. We each have our good and not so good moments. Yet, the more that these four and related patterns of discourse dominate, the more civility wanes in the public sphere. As such, I contend that schools are a place where we can do something about this. We can explore how to create and nurture forums where we learn to listen to one another, respect the rights of others, learn to separate ideas from people, discover the benefits of dispassionate discourse, examine the use of true critical / logical thinking in exploring contemporary issues, and examine how these less civil tactics risk destroying democratic life and discourse. These are achievable tasks in intentional, small, compassionate learning communities.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could establish a growing number of models in our schools for how the larger world can learn to promote a better and more civil society?