On Postings and Other, Sometimes Uncivil, Discourse

 

Colby's first-year class assembles to hear a few words from the president.

By William D. Adams, President
 

At the beginning of every school year, Colby's first-year class assembles in Lorimer Chapel to hear a few words from the president. It is the first of only two times that the class gathers in this way; the other is for the Baccalaureate service at the end of their time on Mayflower Hill. I write a new speech each year, but whatever else changes in the annual message, one theme has emerged as a must: civility. Not table-manners civility or the simple avoidance of conflict, but a civility of conduct and discourse that requires us to listen to others with open minds, to be willing to learn and to grow, and, when we disagree, to do so respectfully. I consider this brand of civility to exist at the core of an academic community. And I talk about it every year because it is so often discouragingly absent, here on Mayflower Hill, on other college campuses, and in our society at large.

The Digest of Civil Discourse, a 2002 initiative of the Student Government Association, is an electronic bulletin board to which all Colby students have access. It was created, as the name implies, as a place where students could conduct civil discussions about a variety of issues. While most entries are fine, the digest at times can be a Wild West of ad hominem attacks, obscenity, name-calling, smugness, and intolerance in short, a digest of very uncivil discourse.

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Why? I have my theories.

We are in the midst of an effort to increase diversity at Colby. Although we have a long way to go to become a fully diverse, inclusive, and welcoming campus, our efforts are steady and obvious"and they are generating discomfort. This discomfort is a stage that has to be faced"even embraced"for us to make progress. But many have reacted by pushing back. Some majority members seem to be saying, "If you want more people who are unlike me to be represented in our community, that must mean that you think there is something wrong with me, my background, my culture, my values." Some members of minority groups come into the community and see the majority as hostile and threatening to their ways of life and their values, and so they too push back. Much heat is generated in this atmosphere, but little light.

Also, I believe that e-mail, instant messaging, electronic forums and the like have made it easier for us to forget that real people, with real feelings, exist on the receiving end of our messages. A case in point happened last spring, when a small group of students posted, to a non-Colby site, what they later termed a satire exposing the hollowness of reactions to the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Another Colby student excoriated this posting on the same site, and the vitriol soon spilled over into the Digest of Civil Discourse.

There were many good and helpful responses to this controversy. What surprised and dismayed me, however, was that some of the students involved apparently felt free not just to disagree with the views of others but to attack those others personally.

Given that Colby's educational precepts include our hope that students will learn "how each individual can confront intolerance" and "to understand and reflect searchingly upon one's own values and the values of others," I might be forgiven some concern when I reflect on how we seem to be doing in these areas. And I sometimes wonder if it is fair of me to ask Colby students to maintain a higher level of discourse than that we see every day in the shrieking cable-news arena, on blogs, and even in Congress.

But fair or not, I do expect and hope for more from Colby students. After all, their ability to communicate with and relate to other people despite intellectual and cultural differences will be critical to their future success. That is why, when the topic of pulling the plug on the Digest of Civil Discourse arises (as it does once or twice a year), I have so far resisted. It is not entirely up to me, of course"I would want a full airing of the matter among students before considering such a measure seriously. And the idea is at times tempting, I admit. But the mission of a liberal arts college is to encourage, not stifle, the free expression of ideas. So, unless the digest takes turns that I cannot envision, I will not be the one to kill it.

What I will do, in my talk to the Class of 2009 and among faculty and staff and all students, is continue to urge us toward a standard of discourse and behavior that makes all of us proud to be members of this community. I will continue to involve myself where possible in efforts to invite to campus speakers and other programs that examine a range of political and social opinion. I will ask my fellow faculty members and administrators to model vigorous civil discourse in the midst of intellectual tension.

Controversy and debate have honored places on our campus and in the wider Colby community that includes alumni/ae and others. My hope is that we can honor ourselves with conduct that rises well above the standard we now see all around us.