October 24, 2010


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We all need to value and practice civility in our everyday encounters with each other for the collective and individual good and safety. The recent tragedy at Rutgers University, the nastiness and public rage of the current midterm election campaigns and even, at times, the climate at Cornell University all reflect a national and international loss of courtesy and respect which threatens to undermine our sense of well-being, to distance us from each other and to render our environment less safe than it ought to be.

Along with the recent release of the film The Social Network, the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi has refocused our attention on the strengths as well as the dangers of the new social media. As a long-time user of Facebook, I’ve studied with interest the evolution of this and other media and the ramifications for our own students at Cornell. Even on our own campus, we receive complaints each year ranging from posts of inappropriate pictures on the Internet to harassment via e-mail.

Inappropriate use of the Internet can obviously damage reputations and cause enormous harm. In his book, The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick warns, “The reality is that nothing on Facebook is really confidential.” Adding credence to that view, a recent investigation by the Wall Street Journal alleged that privacy breaches occur even for Facebook users who set their profiles to the strictest privacy settings. We would all do well to remember that.

But the significance of the growing lack of civility in our public and private lives goes far beyond the recent heartbreak at Rutgers or concerns about social media. A perusal of news headlines day after day brings into sharp focus the degree to which candidates for the highest offices in the land exchange insults and threats.

The chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, James Leach, a former U.S. representative, troubled by this trend, has launched a national “Civility Tour” to highlight the need to return civility to our public life. Mr. Leach noted during a speech at the National Press Club in November 2009, “The temper and integrity of the political dialogue are more important for the cohesiveness of society than the outcome of any election.”

Mr. Leach’s perspective was confirmed by an Allegheny College survey of civility and compromise in American politics released last spring. Among the nearly 1,000 randomly selected Americans surveyed, there was “nearly universal agreement that civil politics is essential for a healthy democracy,” leading the study’s authors to conclude that “passionate, respectful politics is not an oxymoron.”

Bringing the focus back to our campus, it is the safety — physical and psychological — of our students, staff and faculty that is of most concern to me. Nearly 60 years ago, Adlai Stevenson noted, “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.” If we broaden this sentiment beyond unpopularity to include differences in politics, country of origin, sexual preference and religious or other personal choices then, I believe, we all need to work much harder to assure that our colleagues throughout Cornell feel not only safe but appreciated and valued.  I have heard from students in specific groups who feel unsafe at times even at Cornell, and I have heard the same sentiment from staff and faculty, based on their personal experiences. Cornell’s hazing website offers resources to help individuals and organizations combat this insidious and illegal form of incivility.

Whether it is bullying through social media posts, differences concerning future directions of a given department or field that lead to angry exchanges or racially motivated incidents, instances of incivility are more frequent on our campus than we sometimes acknowledge.

With all our distinction and renown, it is troubling that Cornell is sometimes not the place where we can feel free to be who we are, voice our opinions without fear of reprisal and live as we choose. In any situation where lack of civility may endanger any of us, we must redouble our efforts to see each other as a collective community and not as potential adversaries. As Gene Knudsen Hoffman noted, “An enemy is a person whose story we have not heard.”

Where to go from here? I offer three simple suggestions:

First, assume that all opinions have value and that we may learn from others, no matter how off-putting their words seem at first.

Second, follow one of the old axioms of civil debate: go after the opinion, not the person enunciating it.

And finally, the golden rule is golden for a good reason: all of us need to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. As we interact with the members of our large and diverse community, let us all please remember it.

David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at [email protected]. From David appears monthly this semester.

Original Author: David J. Skorton