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Creating a Civil Virtual Society

By UCLA Chancellor Gene Block

Published Oct 1, 2014 8:00 AM

Whether in person or online, Bruins should strive to model a standard for civil debate that incorporates critical thinking and respect, as well as restraint and compassion.

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UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. Photo by Amanda Friedman.

For generations, free speech has been one of the hallmarks of university life. Anyone who’s ever traveled up Bruin Walk at noon during the academic year is familiar with the voices that alternately ring out in frustration, exaltation or indignation. Sometimes we disagree and want to shout back; other times they inspire us to act.

UCLA is committed to helping our students find their voice — to communicate something deep inside them through the arts, to contribute an overlooked perspective or to share the next idea that changes our world. But our responsibility to them must go further.

Increasingly, universities are becoming more connected to the world beyond campus, and that’s certainly for the better, but at times they can also mirror the too-often polarized nature of our nation’s politics — where entrenched battle lines are drawn, and opposing sides can hurl personal attacks at one another rather than rise to the challenge of finding ways to engage in genuine cooperation.

Our universities should be a space where the leaders of tomorrow learn the skills that will strengthen civil society — to examine facts without bias; to understand complexity and nuance; to see each other without prejudice. Our students must understand the difference between zeal and zealotry.

Too many times in recent years that difference has been blurred on issues affecting our campus. And it has been painful for the community. When disagreement becomes disrespectful, people feel their core identity, culture or history are threatened, and debate ceases to be productive.

Toward the end of the last academic year, a debate in our student government led some of our students to feel disrespected, intimidated or unfairly singled out because of their beliefs — particularly on social media. We should never let the ease and convenience of communicating via these platforms leave us with the false notion that we are absolved of responsibility for our words. More than ever, using social media requires even more care than actually talking to someone. In a conversation, we may provide context; in an online debate, words can be easily misinterpreted, spun and circulated before we are able to explain ourselves.

Finding ways to have respectful debate on emotional issues is challenging enough when opposing sides meet in person. I worry about what happens when people try to have these debates over their computers or phones, often never having met those they engage with or expecting they’ll never have to face them in person. The more technology connects people all across the world in new ways that can revolutionize how we support one another and build important connections, the more we must be aware of how increasingly brief encounters with strangers — sometimes limited to 140 characters, as on Twitter — can also tear people down and alienate us from each other.

It’s exceptionally easy today to make assumptions based on what we read in a few moments on our screen and act, by making a comment or signing a petition, based on incomplete or even inaccurate information. The speed with which information travels and the often difficult-to-trace source of that information require all of us to read more critically before we judge.

If we are to reverse the tide of hyperpolarization, attack and counterattack, then it is incumbent upon all of us, in our homes, workplaces, campuses and communities, to set a higher standard. We must insist that what passes for the norm for others is not the norm for us. We must not stand idly by as the lines of division harden, instead hearing before we speak and examining before we act.

As our students shape their values and find their voice, we have a duty to teach them that online and in person, passion must be tempered with compassion, and vigor accompanied by restraint. Our goal as Bruins, on campus and beyond, must be to cultivate the ability to ask questions with an open mind, to examine the world with open eyes and, yes, to approach each other with open hearts.