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The case for civility

By Brian Lewis
July 1, 2016
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The case for civility

“What’s happening to political discourse in the U.S., and what does it mean for global citizens?”

That is, in essence, the question I am repeatedly asked as my work on behalf of ISTE takes me to many places around the globe during this extended election season.

It seems the lack of civility we’re experiencing has educators – and others – wondering how it’s impacting the bigger picture. After all, the vitriol can be easily connected to an issue educators worldwide deal with on a daily basis – digital citizenship.

A recent column in the New York Times by Arthur C. Brooks titled “Bipartisanship isn’t for wimps, after all” sums it up well.

“Watch and listen to politically polarized commentary today, and you will see that it is more contemptuous than angry, overflowing with sneering, mockery and disgust. Studies on the subject have shown that whereas simple anger is characterized by short-term attack responses but long-term reconciliation, contempt is characterized by rejection and social exclusion in both the short term and the long term. Polarization – and thus contempt – leads to permanent enmity.”

Brooks also points out that polarization obstructs collaboration. He notes the Dali Lama’s antidote to permanent enmity is convincing individuals to change their own behavior. Step two is for each of us to aspire to “warmheartedness” toward those with whom we disagree. 

Easier said than done, especially for the adults involved, not to mention the world’s students.
Today’s classrooms are not, and should not, be the same as they were when I was an elementary school student in the 1960s. I had a different school experience that impacts my perception of how we “do” school. But that anchored perception of what school was like for my generation can’t inform modern education.

Which got me thinking.

How do I free myself to understand, support and contribute to a rapidly evolving reality regarding how we communicate, share, agree and disagree with mutual respect in a world that is so different than when I was in school? How do I change my frame of reference, and how do educators help change that frame of reference, to benefit today’s learners? How do I ensure that I’m working toward warmheartedness, as opposed to enmity?

In the digital age, we all have a voice and access to dozens of channels where that voice can be heard. And we can make our voices as loud as we want. But how do we do that while simultaneously creating new places of understanding without divisive personal attacks over a string of messages in a social media conversation?

It’s great that we’ve been empowered to share our ideas, but that sharing has become so amplified that many I know are opting out of social media altogether so as not to be pulled into the raucous personal attacks that differences of opinion can turn into today. And who can blame them?

Where will we be in a dozen years if we continue to create a cesspool of disrespect and indignities through our online comments? Do we stay this course, or instead find a place where we set expectations about how we will communicate with each other? Will we continue to support incivility or will we adjust societal expectations and create a standard to hold ourselves to? Who will say it’s enough? Who will set the standard?

We will. Educators will. The ISTE community will.

We must be the ones to find a joint path forward that looks nothing like today’s contemptuous election cycle. We must reject polarization and embrace warmheartedness. We must be part of the solution as respectful, tolerant, informed digital citizens.

Let’s do this.

Brian Lewis is CEO of ISTE. Follow him on Twitter @BLewisISTE.