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Is Call for Civility Meant to Silence Critics?

by on September 08, 2014 6:00 AM

As a Penn State employee, alumna and as a PSU parent, I received several copies of university president Eric Barron's recent letter in my inbox, asking for civility among the Blue and White faithful.

The letter, signed by all of the administrators and executive leaders of the university, addressed the continuing discourse surrounding the Penn State Board of Trustees and the decisions made after what was referred to in the letter as the "crisis."

The leadership is asking Penn Staters to consider how they express their opposition and frustration and opined that the full story around the scandal may never come to light. They are reminding us that respect is a core value of our beloved university and that how we treat each other in our disagreements will role model behaviors for students.

Although I wholeheartedly agree that mutual respect should always be a guiding principle in our interactions, I cringe at the use of the word civility.

How many times in history have those who have been questioned or whose decisions came under fire by the people that they serve accused the opposition of being uncivil?

It's one of the oldest strategies in the book. When the volume on the demand for answers gets loud, deflect from the message by marginalizing the messenger. We decry incivility to dismiss the opinions of the people in the out-group. Calling for civility is sometimes intended to make those who question think twice before raising what can sometimes be legitimate concerns or issues.

I've been a little sensitive to the use of the word civility since the State College community fought to stop the local school board several years ago. As the community opposition gathered steam and it became clear we weren't going away, the cry for civility rang out from the school board and its supporters.

The mere fact that we continued to question was painted as being uncivil. In reality, the uncivil behavior that we did see was pretty limited and those limited instances came from both sides of the debate. Sadly, in the end, the faulty planning and bad management that so many knew was going to be a nightmare ended up costing the community millions of dollars in wasted resources.

Sometimes, it's important to hear what people are saying and focus less on how they are saying it.

There is no question that we, as a society, are less civil than we used to be. Talk radio, news and info-tainment channels in which people shout and shout over each other, and reality TV shows that take us into the scripted conflicts of those living in front of the cameras are just a few examples of the collective "we" and that shows us forgetting our manners.

The anonymity of the internet and social media make it easy to be uncivil. I've had the pleasure of being the target of nasty comments posted about my opinions in these columns by people sometimes using pseudonyms but at other times freely using their names.

End of semester student evaluations of university faculty are now on-line and are available in the last week of the semester 24/7; it sometimes helps to be sitting down to read some of those gems. From Trip Advisor to Angie's List or any other "review" page on a website, people sometimes express their anger and frustration without remembering to be polite.

Manners, decorum and restraint are what separate us from our animal co-habitants on this planet. Being aware of the impact of our conduct and our conversation makes it easier to live with each other.

On the other hand, well behaved women -- and men -- rarely make history. Disagreement in the service of change is sometimes messy and loud. There are few shifts in any large and unyielding institution like the government or other bureaucracy that doesn't come with a little noise.

The fact that someone is engaged in discourse can also be a sign of investment, motivation and dedication to the group's mission. Being willing to continue to fight for retribution and the reputation of our university may actually show how much people care about it.

On this point I agree: the leadership of Penn State used the letter to remind us "The First Amendment guarantees our right to speak as we wish, but we are stronger if we can argue and debate without degrading others." Being polite and respectful to our colleagues, our fellow alums and to those who serve and support our university should always be our starting point. Outrage and anger do not justify disrespect.

A university community, more than others, should be motivated to find answers to some very important questions. Through polite and respectful discourse, we can hopefully learn from our stumbles and try to avoid repeating them in the future.

Reminding all sides to be nice when they disagree may not be a bad thing as long as we aren't using "incivility" to silence the call for answers.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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