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Civility in Society is an Ethical Issue

SFSU student’s call for civility starts with ‘I feel your pain’

I recently read a piece by Ryan Ariel Simon on on December 19 that addresses the atmosphere on the campus of San Francisco State University. Having taught there for ten years, I was particularly interested in Ryan’s take on the reaction of the Jewish students to an event on campus that deals with the Israeli-Palestinian debate. The issue of civility is front and center in the piece so I decided to blog about it. Civility is an element of ethical behavior because it encompasses treating others the way we want to be treated – with respect and tolerance.

Ryan writes…”Over the past month there has been, under the surface, a debate over what is acceptable in our campus discourse at San Francisco State University when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This round of the debate was initiated when Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative (AMED) along with the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS) and other groups, held an event commemorating the establishment of a mural on Malcolm X Plaza honoring Palestinian American scholar Edward Said. Unfortunately, most of the debate has taken place online or outside of campus. This is an attempt to bring it home. The complaints for many in the Jewish community centered around the stencils distributed at the event stating, “My heroes have always killed colonizers,” allegedly followed by violent rhetoric directed toward Israelis by the GUPS president. While San Francisco Hillel worked to address our concerns soberly and measuredly, the debate swirled out of control when groups outside SFSU took it upon themselves to “protect” students without asking us why we were upset or what we needed for support. Charges of anti-Semitism and stifling academic freedom were thrown around, making our campus a battleground for hardliners fighting their own agendas. This is an attempt to bring civility and genuineness back to this debate.”

My feeling is it doesn’t matter which side of the issue you come down on. Respectfulness is an ethical value and requires that we honestly and openly present both sides of an issue and one side should not demean the other. It does no good to incite those who hold a viewpoint different from our own. It doesn’t add qualitatively to the debate.

Our society has morphed into one where incivility reigns supreme. We have seen protesters shout down the President of the U.S.; our elected representatives making crude remarks; hate speech against targeted groups; and violence imposed on a group simply because they hold views different than our own. This is no way to engage debate and enhance the ethical foundation of civility so important to our Founding Fathers.

At this time of year we all should embrace the resolution to be kinder to each other on all levels. Crudeness and rudeness has no place in a civil society. It would be nice if social media and the entertainment industry took this to heart and changed the way they depict life in America, but we all know that won’t happen. As they say, ‘that ship has sailed.’

What ever happened to love thy neighbor as thyself? Margaret Mead once said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” How true it is that the greatness of people has changed an intolerable situation into a positive force for peace and civility: Nelson Mandela who recently past is one; Martin Luther King, Jr. another; and Mahatma Gandhi a third, just to name a few who are well known to all of us.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on December 24, 2013