Several weeks ago, a Deerfield alumna published an open letter on Facebook addressed directly to the school community. She expressed concerns about prevalent issues of prejudice on campus, namely sexism and racism, and called for readers to respond and share their experiences. In a matter of hours, the thread was filled with debate and discussion, with Deerfield students and alumni alike posting comments to share their opinions.
While some commenters did offer respectful statements that provided their perspectives and acknowledged those of others, the comment thread was largely filled with heated, back-and-forth debate, in which many openly condemned others’ perspectives as invalid or even resorted to personal attacks and insults.
We know that racism and sexism are issues that many people feel strongly about, or that touch many people at a personal level. No matter what we believe, it can be upsetting and frustrating when others do not share our beliefs or see our points of view. But attacking others’ opinions will only alienate them and lead to more defensiveness, animosity, and narrow-mindedness. This type of discussion is far from productive. At Deerfield, we learn how to have respectful discussions with our peers every day in our classes, especially at the seminar table. So why can’t we do it on Facebook?
While public social media platforms allow for widespread and efficient dissemination of information, they can also invite people to communicate with each other more aggressively and more disrespectfully than they might dare to do in person. It is often easier to dehumanize others online, when we can’t physically see them.
Much of the healthy discussion that we practice every day at Deerfield stems from the notion of the Socratic seminar, an approach to discussion based off of the beliefs of the philosopher Socrates. “I know that I know nothing” is an idea underlying Socrates’ philosophy. The goal of a Socratic seminar is not for any one faction to “win” the argument. Instead, participants are encouraged to think critically about the issues at hand and work together to construct meaning and draw conclusions.
With the rise of debate surrounding pertinent issues in our community, it is now especially important that we focus on having candid but productive and respectful discussions. As the “Cross the Valley” posters around campus have reminded us, we must accept others’ experiences and perspectives as true to them. Other posters have also urged us to listen to understand, instead of listening to respond. It is important to take these cultural competency skills to heart, as they can go a long way in promoting healthier dialogue in our lives.
Whether online or in person, we must resist the urge to attack and devalue others’ opinions, no matter how different they are from our own, and instead, work towards empathy and understanding and ultimately, cooperation in order to find solutions to any challenges we face as a community. Only by engaging open-mindedly and respectfully with one another can we bridge our differences and work towards progress.