Social Media, Civility, and Free Expression

Ashley Thorne

At this conference we are celebrating the centennial of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and its landmark 1915 statement on academic freedom. In that statement there’s a key sentence that deals with the conditions for academic freedom:

The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditioned by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language.1

Times have changed since 1915, and many of us now see a call for “temperateness of language” as essentially a call for censorship. Indeed, trying to mandate civility is a slippery slope that can be used for censorship, but the impulse to establish a culture of maturity and courtesy is a good one.

Why should we care about civility? It’s not just about saying, “Be nice.” For one thing, civility is important because it’s fair—showing equal respect for other people is a form of justice. It’s also necessary for true education. If our goal is to grow educated men and women who can think for themselves and exercise good judgment, civility is the healthy soil that makes it possible for them to grow this way, whereas vilifying people shuts down open debate and stunts educational growth.

Our founding president George Washington famously copied out 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation as a school exercise. The first of the rules was that “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”2 With social media, which is the subject of this panel, “those that are present” are who?—it’s the Internet, where potentially thousands of people can read what we write on Twitter and Facebook.

This realm of online social media, where people open their private thoughts to the public, is complex. It would seem to be the ideal place for unprecedented numbers of people to come together for mass discussion and to find common ground.

Unfortunately, social media is not usually well-disposed toward debate or collaboration, for a number of reasons. Much of what is said on social media is highly polarized. Trendy causes arise and people endorse them blindly. Online comments are easy to misinterpret, and it’s easier both to offend and to take offense when you aren’t face-to-face with any particular person.

It’s also easy to get too comfortable on social media, since there you feel like you’re in control of that space. Writing a comment on Facebook or Twitter can feel a lot like writing in your diary. But the reality is that it’s not for your eyes only, or for you and a few trusted friends; it’s an incredibly public space.

If you are part of an academic community—even if you are stating your own opinions and not trying to speak on behalf of your university—if you are speaking in a public forum the things you say inescapably reflect upon you as an academic and as someone who is teaching young people. You are, of course, free under the law to say what you want. On June 1, the Supreme Court decided a case where a man had written a graphic Facebook post addressed to his wife about how he was going to kill her. The Court decided this was protected speech.

The First Amendment even protects hate speech as free speech. Nobody should go to jail for things they’ve said, academics included. But just because you can say something doesn’t mean you should. To paraphrase a line from the Bible: All speech is lawful, but not all speech is helpful.3

Not all speech is conducive to an atmosphere of respect, and therefore, there is merit in the expectation that faculty members hold themselves to a higher standard and exercise some self-restraint as part of an academic community. This has also been called the domain of “obedience to the unenforceable”—that space between the domain of law and the domain of free choice.4

When it comes to responding to academics who seem to have crossed into a lack of restraint, we get into tricky territory, and there aren’t easy answers.

There are generally two opposite reactions to speech that offends. The recent controversy in which students accused Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis of violating Title IX because of an essay she had published was one extreme reaction.5 We’ve entered an odd moment in the history of higher education in which large numbers of students have developed a taste for censorship, not of uncivil speech but of any ideas they don’t want to hear. Last year Harvard student Sandra Korn gave us another term for this: she called it “academic justice.”6

And then there is the idea that academic freedom ought to protect students and faculty from any professional consequences when they show blatant disrespect for others. So on one side is an impulse to silence ideas we don’t like, and on the other side is the policy that anything goes. Both of these absolutist answers distract us from the central mission of college. In an academic setting, we should aim for neither censorship nor unbounded license. There is a narrow zone between those two.

It’s not that in college we should never encounter ideas with which we disagree, but that those ideas should be expressed in a way that’s free from malice.

At this conference the AAUP is taking up a resolution to censure the University of Illinois over the firing of Steven Salaita. The university revoked its job offer to Salaita after he tweeted, among other things, “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the f—ing West Bank settlers would go missing” (except he spelled out the f-word).7 A number of his other comments on Twitter were similarly vulgar. In a speech he gave last fall, Salaita defended himself, saying, “I’m no terrorist; I’m no bully; I’m no savage; I’m a man who was fired because I condemned Israeli policy in language appropriate to a horrible occasion rather than the meek platitudes of civility. I prefer moral clarity.”8

To Salaita, civility is “meek”—in other words, weak, cowardly. What he’s saying reflects a wider cultural attitude that we think we are being more truthful and more authentic when we give full vent to our emotions. I would submit that we are actually stronger when we do the work it takes to master our emotions. Practicing civility—even when we don’t feel like being gracious—makes us more humane and leads to better understanding rather than polarization. We should be in touch with reality, but we need a respectful way to talk about reality.

This works both ways. It also applies to the way we respond to people by whom we are offended: we should not try to offend them back.

Case in point, after a demonstration this spring at Valdosta State University in which students trampled on the American flag, one of the participants, Eric Sheppard, was wanted by federal authorities for having a gun on campus. In support of Sheppard, someone started a Twitter trend, #ericsheppardchallenge, calling on Twitter users to post images of themselves stepping on the flag. Some people did post such images, which is itself a form of uncivil speech, though it is constitutionally protected. Most of the people using the hashtag, however, spoke against this demonstration. A lot of these people warned of what they would do to anyone they saw doing the challenge. One tweet read “SAVE A FLAG stomp #EricSheppard and his minions.”

Politically, incivility can come from both the left and the right. The role that properly falls to the university is to model a better way. However, one reason we have the problem of incivility in campus settings today is the rise of the idea that the university exists primarily for transforming society rather than primarily as a place of learning. This activist focus leads to politicization of the academy, which leads to wars over ideology. There are constructive ways of weighing competing ideologies, but universities tend to take sides and preclude an open airing of different perspectives. There’s much more to be said about this, but for now I will simply state that we must remember that the main goal of higher education is to learn about the world, not to change it. That will help us stay focused on learning from one another rather than scoring points for our political views.

So, what should we say and not say on social media? Again, there are no easy answers. I’m in the linguistics field and some of my peers have worked on algorithms that can supposedly detect sarcasm on Twitter. Maybe we could use something similar on incivility—but human discernment will always be more reliable than algorithms.

College leaders need to use judgment in responding to particular cases, and members of the academic community need to practice discretion about what they say on social media. If I had to give some basic guidelines for faculty who are active on social media, I would suggest the following: Don’t attack people in the ad hominem. Don’t use vulgar language. Don’t call for people to be physically harmed. Ask yourself before you post: “Is this conducive to an atmosphere of respect and open inquiry?”

Ultimately, manners cannot be legislated. At some point people either embrace the worthiness of an ideal or they don’t. But that doesn’t mean we should do nothing. Colleges and universities have a responsibility to enunciate ideals and model good character. And civility is our best bulwark against abuses such as cyberbullying and intimidation. We can’t outlaw spite and misanthropy, but we can make clear that behavior on that end of the spectrum is no basis for intellectual community. That would also go a long way to help colleges and universities respond with the right combination of temperance and decisiveness to on-campus disrespect, such as when protesters mob, shout down, or even “clap down” campus speakers.

Civility, rightly understood, is not about avoiding confrontation. After all, George Washington was a man of war. A civil campus isn’t one in which everyone agrees for the sake of agreeability, or a place where we just agree to disagree and never talk about it again. Rather, it is a campus in which debate is conducted with basic respect for your ideological opponents. That basic respect should be extended to social media.

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