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Harsh words don't help

SOMETHING very important is missing from the recent tumult over Board of Visitors member Terence P. Ross' comment that the University is "reaching a little bit down [its] academic standards" to recruit black students. There is a lack of civility on all sides of the issue. Rather than looking for long-term solutions, the NAACP has, in its request for Ross' removal from the Board of Visitors, exacerbated the situation.

Stephen L. Carter, professor of law at Yale University and author of the book "Civility," defines civility as "the sum of the many sacrifices we are called to make for the sake of living together."

Civil behavior may not be the easiest route. In fact, in the case of the University's affirmative action debate, the benefits of a civil dialogue do not come without sacrifice. In taking the time to talk about the issue, we sacrifice an expedient resolution. But civil behavior is a social lubricant we cannot forego. It takes the most heated debate and makes it a rational process with a desired goal.

There are a few minor subtleties of civility worthy of comment. First, under all circumstances it is imperative to allow free speech, even the speech we hate. Second, we should not tolerate error -- logical, factual or otherwise. These two provisos might seem contradictory, but they aren't. What they tell us is that, in a civil society, we resolve conflict through the power of persuasion. Uninformed or ignorant statements should not be stymied. Rather, we should allow the weakness of an incomplete argument to be revealed in debate. We should confront our opponent's issues -- not our opponents. Ideologues on either side of the debate should feel that they can discuss the issues rationally with their dissenters.

I have yet to see a response that addresses the empirical nature of Ross' statement without disparaging him. If indeed we are lowering standards, why is it appropriate? One answer has been steadfastly touted this past week: diversity.

Diversity is an honorable goal. Apparently, the NAACP wants diversity, but not diversity of opinion -- or they wouldn't have made it their immediate course of action to call for Ross' removal. And the former without the latter is a very perverse notion. It suggests that variety at an institution of higher education is guaranteed by variance in skin pigment, not an eclectic body of intellectuals. This is yet another act of incivility, as it is insulting to excelling minority students whose achievements are likened to their exterior.

As for the moral outrage generated by Ross' comments, it's nothing more than pretense. Sure, he rocked the boat a bit, but this is healthy in a civil society. Acting civilly means that we must acknowledge each other's dignity. Consequently we owe each other the respect to listen to one another's opinions while in active pursuit of truth.

Instead, in the current debate, flaring tempers have overcome rational contemplation of the issues. Outrage and passion, without fair judgment, is a recipe for a civility crisis.

Even more troubling is that the NAACP resorted to legalistic measures before attempting to resolve the problem civilly. The law is a coercive measure. Voluntary and civil exchange of ideas never can occur when someone feels unduly pressured.

It is easy in a culture as litigious as ours to see law and its far-reaching implications as a panacea. But it only fuels the fire. Minds never can meet under these circumstances, and the issues central to the controversy will take a backseat, never reaching resolution. It certainly is appropriate that either camp should be passionate, but passionate in a civil way. The method by which the two sides reach a resolution are just as important as the resolution itself.

On the other hand, we should not be prepared to say that Mr. Ross is devoid of responsibility. Suggesting that the NAACP was in search of a token pet problem or a spot in the limelight belittles the issue, and lends less credence to his viewpoint. Yet another case of avoiding issues and launching unfounded personal attacks -- measures most pernicious to civil decorum.

Ross' initial comment was uncivil in that his statement effectively alienated an entire element of our student body. Worse yet, it was made as an empirical statement even though he did not support it with good empirical evidence.

The issue of raced-based admissions is a fertile ground for proper debate and contemplation. This debate must be civil. This is not the first grade. Adults should know better than to call each other names, to be hostile as opposed to resolving conflict, to go to an arbiter before attempting to handle the problem oneself.

People, justifiably or not, feel that their rights and opportunities are jeopardized. If we are to assuage worries and reach a fair conclusion, no party should leave the table feeling abused.

(Jeffrey Eisenberg is a first-year College student.)


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