For more than 150 years, a simple adage has helped children deal with the daily parade of schoolyard insults: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
That saying was never entirely true, of course, and it’s almost hopelessly outdated today, as online bullies spew their venom across the internet.
Now it isn’t just kids who struggle with the hurt and turmoil caused by harsh words. Lives and careers can be ruined by a single viral post. Social media firms spend millions trying to maintain basic levels of civility. By some accounts, democracy itself is threatened by the increasing polarization and divisive rhetoric of the modern world.
Outside of social media platforms, few places spend more time dealing with the challenges and opportunities of free speech than higher education.
By their very nature, colleges and universities are places of inquiry. They encourage vigorous debate and a diversity of opinion. Free speech, for all its bumps and bruises, is as necessary to their educational mission as it is to the republican form of government.
At the same time, campuses strive to create welcoming environments. They want people to express their views without fear of backlash — a goal that sticks and stones and rude words sometimes work against.
“So how do we continue to support the First Amendment while building an equitable community where everyone can thrive?” said Jaime Nolan, associate vice president of community, equity and inclusive excellence at Washington State University. “Some would argue we can’t have it both ways, but I believe we can.”
Finding that sweet spot is the challenge facing higher education, and society as a whole.
What’s the goal?
Nolan’s responsibilities at WSU include the Women’s Resource Center, Multicultural Student Services and Office of Outreach and Education (formerly the Office of Equity and Diversity). She’s also involved in the ongoing Campus Culture and Climate initiative launched by WSU President Kirk Schulz.
Having spent her career in the community-building field, Nolan has seen a shift in the type of issues that prompt student protests and demonstrations, as well as the level of civility involved.
“I think the current political climate has made things more complicated,” she said. “It’s more acceptable to say things without considering the impact on others.”
In 2016, for example, the WSU College Republicans built a “Trump wall” on the Terrell Mall.
The event sparked a strong response, both pro and con, as well as outrage and counterprotests. A number of WSU students are immigrants themselves, or come from immigrant families. If the intent was to make them feel unwelcome, the demonstration succeeded. If not — if, say, the goal was to have an informed discussion about U.S. immigration policy — then an alternative approach might have been more effective.
Part of the mission of higher education, Nolan said, is to help students learn how to navigate an increasingly polarized world. And one way to do that — particularly when advocating for a cause — is to think about the end result they’re trying to achieve.
“If you see that you’re being hurtful, is that part of the objective?” she said. “If not, maybe you need to step back and consider a different approach. You can stay true to your values, but execute differently.”
Nolan believes that perspective is beginning to take root.
“I think we’re starting to see a shift — a willingness to take that pause — which is really what we’re looking for,” she said.
As part of its efforts to encourage students to consider the effect of their words, WSU recently began holding community forums on the First Amendment and the rights and responsibilities that come with free speech.
A few miles down the road, the University of Idaho also has a “campus conversations” program that puts civil discourse on display. It brings people with different perspectives together for panel discussions on issues and events of relevance to students.
“I think it’s incumbent upon higher education — and our (political) leaders — to show what civil discourse looks like,” said Blaine Eckles, UI’s dean of students.
A louder megaphone
Like Nolan, Eckles has seen changes over time in the type of issues that dominate campus protests.
“We’ve had contentious times before,” he said. “Free speech and protests are part and parcel of higher education campuses, so the current environment isn’t unique. What is unique is the proliferation in the ways people can engage.”
Historically, a few hundred people might have seen a campus demonstration, or maybe a few thousand if it was covered by the local newspaper and television station. Marginalized groups didn’t even get that.
“Now, with the internet, folks who typically didn’t get much play can be heard around the world,” Eckles said. “It’s given them a louder megaphone. That’s been a game changer.”
Add to that the growing phenomenon Nolan labeled the “hubris of certitude” — the idea that “opinions are sacred” and facts are unnecessary.
“It’s the attitude that ‘I’m right; you’re wrong, so there’s nothing for us to talk about,’ ” she said. “As long as we have that all-or-nothing approach, change isn’t possible.”
Taken together, these changes mean there’s a constant stream of vitriol pushed to much of the population from people’s computers, smartphones and television screens, all seeking to draw lines and further divide.
Partly in reaction to this, school administrators are becoming more proactive about addressing controversies. Rather than stay silent, as they might have in the past, they’re treating them as educational opportunities. The goal isn’t to pick winners or losers, or to show that one side or the other is “right.” It’s to demonstrate that there are better ways to understand and address differences.
Last year, for example, the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform staged anti-abortion presentations at both WSU and UI.
UI Director of Communications Jodi Walker said the event included a number of posters with “very graphic displays.” Rather than limit the material — which would have been a First Amendment violation — UI sent out a notice the day before, letting faculty members and students know the demonstration was taking place and that it would be graphic.
“The day of the event, we posted yard signs alerting students that there was graphic material ahead, so they could avoid it if they wanted,” Walker said.
An area was set up for counterprotesters. Representatives from the university counseling center and the Dean of Students Office were also available to talk.
“We got some good feedback,” Walker said. “We felt good that we’d been able to provide the space (for the demonstration), while also protecting those who didn’t want to participate.”
New skills, new approaches
But peaceful co-existence — you go your way; I’ll go mine — isn’t the same as effective engagement.
Teaching students how to present ideas without drawing lines in the sand, how to articulate their views when being attacked, teaching them that free speech is important even when it’s uncomfortable — that’s all part of the role of higher education, particularly in a polarized age.
“Let’s give this generation some of the skills we weren’t so good at ourselves,” said Judi McDonald, associate dean of WSU’s graduate school.
McDonald noted that the transition from high school to college or the postsecondary world can be jarring for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the differing approaches to public speech.
“They go from a very protected to a very open environment,” she said. “There’s a sense that we have an obligation to the under-18 crowd to protect them from things that are harmful. But when they turn 18, their rights and responsibilities expand dramatically.”
They’re suddenly free to express themselves in ways that might have been discouraged in high school. They’re also challenged to develop thicker skins, so they aren’t offended every time someone says something they don’t like.
“I’m hopeful we can get to a point where we can be respectful, without reacting strongly every time someone misspeaks,” McDonald said.
At the same time, society has modernized its understanding of acceptable speech, of what constitutes civility. Words and attitudes that might have been OK historically are now recognized as being offensive and inappropriate.
“There’s been a real movement the past 20 to 40 years to change the vocabulary of how we talk about each other,” McDonald said. “Our generation said things that were just so hurtful.”
When she was a graduate student in 1989, for example, McDonald, who is Canadian, was friends with a group of guys. One was her boyfriend. The men later rented a house together and dubbed it “Misogyny House.”
“I told my boyfriend I wasn’t OK with that,” she said. “He got really angry. He told me I had no right to limit his free speech. I said, ‘You’re right, but I don’t need to keep dating you.’ The whole group stopped socializing with me. That was about a month before the Montreal Massacre.”
During the massacre, an antifeminist gunman shot and killed 14 women and injured 14 other people at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. It remains the deadliest mass shooting in Canada since the start of the 20th century.
“Words matter,” McDonald said. “We have free speech, but we often forget there are consequences — sometimes consequences for us, and sometimes for others. That’s the message I’d like to get out.”
William L. Spence may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 791-9168.