Quote president, skip asterisks
This week marked the beginning of the spring semester at Kent State, where I teach journalism as a professional in residence. One of the rituals of the first day of class is to go over the syllabus, which, because of required language, reads like a last will and testament.
I spruce it up where I can, and I always include a few thoughts about how we will conduct ourselves for the next 15 weeks:
Whenever you send an email, use proper grammar and punctuation. Also, good manners elevate human exchanges, and they will help you in whatever career you pursue. I’m not worried about this with all of you. In my experience, virtually all students have engaged with respect and thoughtfulness. I recommend this approach as a lifelong practice. … Every class will be a discussion among writers. Let’s not talk over one another. We will engage with civility, always.
This is an unnecessary reminder, really. As I have learned, civility — which, to me, involves using basic manners — is the currency of most millennials. Every group has its outliers, but if I were forced to choose one group of people to be cooped up with during these long days of winter, I’d pick millennials. So, lucky me, here I am.
Civility matters to me, in large part because of who is excluded with the coarsening. Most thoughtful people don’t want to be yelled at, and they certainly don’t want to feel threatened. They want to be heard.
For about a decade now, I’ve been moderating public discussions on my Facebook wall. We’ve built quite a community by agreeing that we will engage with civility. I block anyone who isn’t willing to do so. My kitchen, my rules.
Every so often, I post a list of guidelines with a photo of our dog, Franklin, looking over a pair of reading glasses. Mock me if you will, but I’m telling you, nothing gets the public’s attention faster than the face of a canine intellectual.
I encourage people to avoid questioning fellow commenters’ intelligence, their capacity to learn or the strength of their family’s gene pool. I also ask them not to correct other people’s spelling or grammar in threads on my wall. As far back as January 2015, I explained that “as the last few months in Washington, D.C., have illustrated, many a fine education is wasted. Learned is not the same as wise.”
My Lord, what I didn’t see coming.
There’s a reason I’m laying out my commitment to civility, and it has everything to do with coverage of recent comments by the president of the United States.
On Jan. 11, Donald Trump sat in the Oval Office and reportedly complained to lawmakers about immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and the whole continent of Africa.
Some news organizations initially struggled over whether they should quote Trump directly as saying, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” He also reportedly suggested the U.S. should bring in more people from Norway, which, not remotely coincidentally, is a lot whiter than Haiti, El Salvador and Africa.
A full 24 hours after this was reported, not one Republican in that room had rebutted this account. By the weekend, though, a couple of them sounded like two kids coordinating their story about how the cat got in the dryer.
Uh-uh, they claimed, Trump didn’t say “hole.” He said “house.”
How is that any better? More than a whole day later, and that’s what they came up with. Nothing like the tick-tick-tick of time to reveal a straight-out lie.
It didn’t occur to me that news organizations wouldn’t accurately quote the president’s racist comment until I woke up Friday morning to NPR’s repeatedly referring to it as merely “vulgar.” The story on NPR’s website used “s***hole.” I was one of many on social media who criticized this decision, and I’m glad that NPR rethought its policy.
Still, too much of the discussion about this is turning on whether we’re letting Trump debase our discourse. This is not the issue at hand, and I say that as someone deeply committed to civility. It’s not our job to protect the American public from the president’s racism.
This is the world we’re in, not the world we want. Our challenge, as Americans who care about this country, is how to combat the former while working to bring about the latter.
Yes, yes, the children are listening.
Could there be any greater incentive than that?
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism.