Of course, the big difference in today’s debate versus those taking place even as recently as the 1960s is the omnipresent Internet and social media. It’s changed the rules and the very foundations of discourse, and everyone is still coming to terms with this seismic tilt in the landscape of debate. When you can go anonymous and viral, it takes little courage to have an opinion.
But again, these are admittedly difficult issues. I mean, the difference between heartfelt honesty and underlying racism is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Does fear of being tagged a bigot prevent open — and perhaps helpful — discourse? What is the do labels such as “politically correct” and “culturally sensitive” really mean?
The last two issues of The Smoky Mountain News have contained stories about students at Western Carolina University dealing with some harsh realities of life in 21st century America. It started with posters put up by the Intercultural Affairs Department about police brutality as it relates to race. From there the debate went to Facebook, which led to a response in the form of chalking from students associated with Intercultural Affairs. That led to the use of the Yik Yak anonymous phone app, where responses to the chalking crossed a racist line that really set off the firestorm. The chancellor and other campus leaders criticized what was being said on Yik Yak.
“When we disagree, we must do so with respect for one another,” wrote Chancellor David Belcher in a campus-wide email. “While we value our right to freedom of speech at WCU, we also value its responsible use.”
That wasn’t the end. Discussions were organized around campus to help students bring their feelings into the open and come up with ways to discuss and disagree. A month later, conservative students organized their own chalking, and those political statements once again set off a discourse on being civil and responsible.
The conservative chalkers — like the students from Intercultural Affairs — stood by their slogans, figuratively and literally. They hung around and openly discussed their views with some students who thought the messages in some of the chalking were out of line.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Who did this?’ and they were upset people were hiding behind the chalk, so I sat beside the fountain and said that I led it and if anyone has questions about my beliefs, they’re welcome to ask,” said junior Kimmy Hammond, who organized the conservative chalking.
Those discussions are a critical cog in the bigger story. Standing face-to-face with someone and discussing something you disagree about is no easy task, and it is as important a lesson as those students will get in any of their college courses.
“I was pleased to see these conversations of let’s take our attention away from the chalking to talk to each other,” said Kevin Koett, WCU’s dean of student affairs.
Agreeing to disagree but doing so with respect. Civil discourse. These are lessons that we must always keep in mind as we navigate the shifting minefields of race and cultural divisions. It ain’t easy, but the young adults and faculty at WCU are at least taking the bull by the horns and trying to move forward, encouraging open, face-to-face debate. That’s as much as we can hope for.