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The Lost Art of Ethics and Civility on College Campuses

Where and When Do We Use Ethics?

The Golden Rule is a common-sense principle of how we should behave. It can apply to all areas of our lives: How should we interact and communicate with others in our personal lives? How should we behave in the workplace? How should we conduct ourselves on social media? These are all questions that speak to what is and is not ethical.

Consider the following common-sense examples of how being ethical can improve your life and the lives of others.

  • Keep quiet in the theater while a movie is playing.

  • Listen when people speak to you.

  • Show respect for people with different points of view.

  • Treat employees fairly; do not discriminate against one group or another.

  • Don’t post material on social media that can be harmful to others.

Most of us would agree that these are ways we would want others to behave towards us so we should behave this way towards others.

In today’s society, politeness, courtesy and respect no longer are given to others for its own sake. These are behaviors we should use when we treat others with care. They are an integral part of what we mean by “civility.”

I am concerned that civility has become a lost art on our college campuses. One of the thorniest issues in colleges today is whether students have a right to silence speakers who express different ideas that do not conform to their beliefs. In March 2017, disruptive students shut down a speech at McMaster University by a University of Toronto professor, Jordan Peterson, who objected to the use of a singular gender-neutral third-person pronoun, such as Ze (pronounced “zee”) instead of saying he/she/they. A Canadian law would require him to use those gender-neutral pronouns. Peterson, who had previously spoken out publicly against “compelled speech,” was supposed to participate in a debate over free speech and political correctness. The debate, which was to include three professors to counter Peterson, had to be shut down when students shouted over Peterson using clanging cowbells, blowing air horns and chanting slogans.

Such incidents occur all too often in the U.S. For example, back in April 2017, student protesters at Claremont McKenna College blocked students and professors from entering the prevent conservative commentator, Heather Mac Donald, from delivering her speech on “The War on Politics.” Her message was how political rhetoric against police make America less safe. Even though Mac Donald was a guest of the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, a research institute on campus, she was prevented from speaking.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects certain rights including speech no matter how offensive its content. The stifling of speech to push one’s agenda harms society because it loses the opportunity to hear speakers with opposing views and openly debate the issues. The way we communicate and exchange ideas speaks volumes about the ethics of a society – how we view right and wrong.

Another example is the increasing popularity of designating safe spaces where college students can get together without being exposed to ideas and speech that make them feel comfortable. The idea of a “safe space” makes sense if the motivating factor is to provide for the physical safety of students and protect a group of students from sexual harassment and physical abuse. It is a bad idea when the intention of a college is to separate out those who might find one group’s speech as disagreeable, if not offensive.

My fear is students may graduate from college where tolerance and respect for others’ points of view is not valued for itself. What will happen when students enter the workplace where diversity of opinion is sought, inclusivity valued, and ethical standards about right and wrong are promoted. Will students be successful in transitioning from one environment to the other?

The 2016 presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton brought out the worst with respect to civility in politics. Inappropriate language, demeaning comments about others and threats against those with differing views marked the campaign of Donald Trump. The propensity to shade the truth and dodge probing questions about her email server haunted Hillary Clinton throughout the campaign and some believe a lack of trust drove voters to sit out the campaign or vote for another candidate.

We make decisions every day, all the time. Ethics is communicated through our words and actions. We live in a time where our primary form of communication is not through written or spoken words, but the click of a button on electronic devices, and the harsh realities of social media where we live our lives so publicly. In such an environment, we all can benefit from learning how to be an ethical person.

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