As another election season heats up, many of us continue to be dismayed by the extent to which intelligent discussions on complex issues can seemingly no longer be held without the kind of hysterical acrimony that only serves to harden positions and make compromise impossible. There are many reasons for this steady erosion of our ability to conduct civil discourse on complex issues, of course, including the unhealthy appetite of the media for headline-grabbing sound bites that will attract readers and viewers. This preoccupation of the media with the most titillating voices from the extreme right and left has given the megaphone to the least thoughtful among us, and has led to a deep polarization among our citizens and elected officials that has made our national and state governmental organizations increasingly dysfunctional.
The explosion of traffic on the internet has also contributed to our growing inability to conduct civil discourse on difficult issues, because anyone anywhere can post opinions sans any kind of editorial filtering or even the most rudimentary fact-checking. In fact, numerous extremist websites make their living by doing so: when their concocted stories "go viral", advertisers are attracted to the site. Demonstrably false assertions can therefore be spread to a large audience so quickly that gullible groups within our electorate adopt them as fact before any organized attempt to set the record straight can be mounted. False assertions, therefore, can gain a kind of credibility only slightly below that of well-established facts, with many now believing that facts are somehow fungible and subject to negotiation.
We in academia, therefore, have an opportunity and an obligation to serve as examples of how to engage in civil discourse in an increasingly polarized nation. Colleges and universities, perhaps more than any other kind of organization, must take seriously the responsibility to remain forums for open and respected discussion of controversial issues. Every institution of higher education is really a learning community, and much of that learning comes from personal interactions within that community. Respect for the opinions of others, even when we strongly disagree with them, has been, and must remain, a cornerstone of every campus community.
At RIT, where I serve as President, a group of faculty, staff, and students have come up with a superb idea for encouraging civil discourse on controversial issues. They have established a "Gray Matter" series of open discussions on campus around topics deliberately chosen for their potential for strong disagreements. Some examples of topics covered include:
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Black Lives Matter
The Politics of Hate - How Much is OK?
Drugs: Capitalize or Criminalize
Is Inclusiveness an Exclusive Club?
Patriotism, Immigration, and Race
Spirituality and Science
Freedom of Speech: How Far is Too Far
Do Bathrooms Have Genders?
Religion, Humor, and Education
Sex and Consent
Although RIT welcomes to campus a wide variety of external speakers on various topics, these "Gray Matter" sessions are attended primarily by campus community members: faculty, staff, and students. Facilitators make a point of encouraging different points of view, and attendees quickly learn that the most compelling opinions are those that are expressed with civility and supported by real facts. Happily, many of the participants have said that their opinions have been influenced and in some cases changed as a result of these discussions.
If we can involve greater numbers of students, staff, and faculty at our colleges and universities in these kinds of discussions, perhaps we can, over time, rekindle a thirst for civil discussion of complex issues that will serve our community and national needs more productively than does the current hateful public discourse. That would be a real contribution of our higher education institutions to the public good.