Internet Incivility: Possibilities for Engaging Students?

10/20/2011 04:29 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

As a political scientist, I have been increasingly interested in questions surrounding civility, especially in our increasingly technological age. I read news stories on the web and repeatedly have found some of the comments after the article to be obscene, hate-filled and belittling. In the classroom, I am encouraging students to read the newspaper. But if they do (especially online), I am introducing them to a battery of verbal spars that would make even the most tolerant of free speech advocates wince.

Ongoing, systematic research of six popular news sites reveals that incivility abounds. Anonymous persons cleverly use commas, dashes and slashes to circumvent moderators. The comments denigrate certain races, religions, other commenting contributors and political preferences. I need not provide a top five list; one must only go to a news site and scroll the web news to find a screed that will cause you to gasp.

In higher education, incivility is considered tantamount to a sin worthy of punishment if not eradication. When conflicts arise, universities hold seminars about how to discuss contentious issues. Surely anyone who has attended a faculty meeting knows that some of us can express petulance. But the road from petulance to vitriol is, at times, a short and narrow one. It's hardly newsworthy to state that meanness abounds, in the academic workplace and elsewhere.

Surely there are democratic theorists who argue that democracies thrive because such free speech is allowed to flow. The hate and anger echoes on our tablets and desktops, yet we the people manage and flourish.

I am not advocating banning or taxing uncivil speech, but I do question its value. As professors and administrators, we have a responsibility to try to quell this trend. As we encourage newspaper readership and civic engagement, we should also converse with our students about free speech, hate speech, and civility in general. We need not seek pretty, clean and sanitized commentaries by citizens. But a conversation about our tone -- on the Internet and elsewhere -- may spark meaningful dialogue about our responsibilities in a democratic society.

We should ask students and faculty if they are outraged by these comments, or if just roll their eyes, shrug and ignore them. It is possible that that indifferent non-action may be the wisest response available to us. Rather than engage the mean spirited individual seeking attention, collective non-response may send a silencing message.

We also may learn from these conversations that we are defining civility down. Interested faculty may wish to pursue research that asks if their students have ever contributed to a comment board, and if so, if the authors would self-describe the tone as uncivil.

Students and faculty alike are reading and writing in comment boards. Our opinions about the news and newsmakers are sometimes unfiltered, coarse and potentially troublesome.

Meanness precedes the Internet; we know it all too well, at the water cooler and at the faculty meeting. Openly discussing the qualitative nature of our expressed opinions will enlighten ourselves, and hopefully, enhance both the quality of our classrooms and our democracy.