One of the casualties of a culture that demands immediate feedback is the loss of time to pause, reflect, deliberate and respond thoughtfully. Most of us have fallen victim to the sensation of stopping a colleague, friend, or spouse as we pass them in the hall and commenting, “I sent you an e-mail about an hour ago…” While we will let this phrase hang in the air as if it were merely a declarative statement, a part of us wishes and expects them to have read our e-mail and responded. This expectation denies us the opportunity to be careful and measured in our responses and causes us to respond in a way we might not otherwise, and may not represent our most civil selves.
Our desire for a speedy response can give us license to respond briskly and often without feeling. It is a slippery slope from the terse to the inappropriate to the offensive. Given the tendency to prioritize speed over reflection, and quotable sound bites over a thoughtful reasoned exchange of ideas, it is not surprising that the general level of civil discourse has been diminished over time. The media is ripe with examples of uncivil discourse – from radio talk show hosts who use hyperbole and bombast to gain listeners, sponsors, and ratings; to Sunday morning programs featuring politicians who are unable and unwilling to acknowledge the merits of an argument made by an opponent; to sparring athletes, roommates, bachelors/bachelorettes, and celebrities on the ubiquitous reality television programming.
These norms pose enormous challenges for society in general and for schools in particular. As my colleague Babara Gereboff, Head of Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School, points out “mean-spirited discourse is not new. The concept of civility originates with Cicero in the concept of ‘societas civilus.’ Cicero’s concept is not about ‘political correctness’ or politeness. Cicero understood civil speech as that which is filtered through how it does or does not contribute to the good of the city. As we live in an increasingly me-centered society, it is difficult to maintain that balance about the good of society overriding the good of the individual.”
Schools are places where children hear different modes, tones, and forms of interacting. They are absorbing their peers’ communication styles as they hear how others praise, critique, cajole, and advocate. Teachers help students learn how to enter into conversations, role-play how to discuss their feelings, and process disagreements in groups so that they build the skills to listen, absorb, reflect, and respond with empathy, kindness, and respect. It is a long process that will undoubtedly be filled with some challenges and missteps. The journey is worth the effort if we hope to restore not only the level of discourse in our society, but to educate our children about our shared humanity.