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Aggression or compassion: The choice is ours

By Brian Lewis
July 14, 2015
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Stephen Hawking says human aggression “threatens to destroy us all.”

Earlier this year, the theoretical physicist said aggression “may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory, or partner with whom to reproduce,” but in modern society, it’s our greatest shortcoming. “The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression,” he said.

It really got me thinking. And I’ve been thinking about it since. Admittedly, it struck a nerve.

Hawking is a highly regarded individual of significant global stature. He’s the subject of an Oscar-winning film who relies on technology to communicate. The issue he weighed in on is a matter of immense importance to the ISTE community…and beyond.

I don’t know if everyone has been the victim of harassment, aggression or bullying in their lives. I suspect we all have in one way or another. I know I have – as a child and as an adult in both my professional and personal lives. There were times when I was the subject of bullying and was lucky enough to have someone step in who acted as an insulator. Someone who stood between the aggressor and me. A buffer. A shield. I’ve so appreciated it when others stepped in for me that, when given the opportunity, I strive to pay it forward and to be that insulator for others.

I remember once, when I was in my 20s, I went to work for a new organization. In my department was a sour, verbally hostile co-worker. She was that way to everyone. After a few weeks, I went to our supervisor to discuss the problem. I was told this is just how the person acted and that I, like everyone else, needed to get accustomed to it. To grow a thicker skin. To which I said, “If she is abusing everyone at work, why does the responsibility for her inappropriate behavior fall on everyone else and not her?” Of course, this wasn’t well received. I was a young, new employee, pointing out the obvious that our supervisor had opted to ignore.

It wasn’t the end of the world. But neither was it right.

Hawking’s comments also reminded me of a committee I served on in the late 1980s for a community newspaper. The newspaper created an advisory board to review its content. A standing column called “Phone Talk” quickly became a cause for concern. Each week, community members could call in and leave an anonymous message criticizing anything or anyone in town. Those comments were then published in the column with no attribution.

It took a year for the committee to convince newspaper staff to require callers to Phone Talk to leave their names and contact information. Messages without that information would not be published. When that happened, the once wildly popular column foundered. It seems anonymous shaming trumps honest attribution every time.

The same sort of thing occurred at newspapers across the country as the internet became ubiquitous. At first, some newspapers published emailed comments or letters without names being required. Submissions flourished, as did their vile nature. It didn’t take long for most papers to require full disclosure regarding who was behind the comments.

So, what about our personal experiences with these issues?

We all know folks in our communities (real or virtual, personal or professional) who make a deliberate decision to be challenging, or aggressive or disagreeable at every turn. Some are proud of the reputation they’ve built. They see it as making their mark, having their influence. The analogy to the bully on the playground is just too easy. I try to steer clear of these folks. Why? Because I have spent the last three decades trying to build bridges. Trying to promote collaboration and attempting to make a difference, not in service to ego, but in service to education – ultimately the students we all serve.

And if we’re really focused on serving our students, and if we really believe in digital citizenship, then aren’t some of us being a little disingenuous when we behave in exactly the ways we’re discouraging students from behaving in real life and in the virtual world?

The irony behind Hawking’s concern is that the ubiquitous technology that has so much power to do good – and that has changed the quality of his life – can also magnify the human tendency toward aggression. Technology has created forums from which people, often anonymously, lash out at one another across political, religious and professional landscapes, doing great harm. Whether through comments in the workplace, road rage on the highway, bullying on the playground, or abuses of the ever-present social media, aggression and intimidation are pervasive in our society.

Of course, the aggression Hawking speaks of is not a new human condition. It just keeps finding new mediums.

The ISTE community advocates for digital citizenship and invests time and resources in tirelessly teaching what this means for young people today, and long into their futures. To be credible and set a good example for students, we have a responsibility to model the tenets of good citizenship. How do we in this incredibly passionate, educated and influential community set an example and hold each other up to the highest standard? How do we make the most of educable moments when they arise? How do we prevent the lack of (digital) citizenship from becoming the cause of our undoing?

Ultimately, Hawking said the human quality he “would most like to magnify is empathy. It brings us together in a peaceful, loving state.”

To meet the challenges of the digital age, educators must demonstrate what responsible citizenship – digital and otherwise – looks like. It starts with us.