Teaching Confucius Again in an Era of Internet Trolling

Teaching Confucius Again in an Era of Internet Trolling August 25, 2019

I’m wondering whether it will be helpful or counterproductive to have students in my course on China this semester think about what Confucius advocated – accuracy of description, ritual and decorum, reciprocity, and so on – and relate that to the internet age.

Some discussion forums insist on ritual and impose linguistic restrictions. We’ve had the odd experience here at Patheos of having Disqus impose restrictions on keywords like Islam (this is a religion site for crying out loud) and oral (those who study ancient religion, including but not limited to early Christianity, are bound to mention oral tradition). But however frustrating the delay in comments appearing may be, there is a potential positive impact to requiring particular ways of thinking and behaving. We cannot require commenters to feel genuine respect towards those with different views from themselves. All we can do is insist on particular behaviors.

Isn’t that rather like what Confucius did, responding to the breakdown of cohesiveness in the Warring States period in China’s history? Might it be helpful to have students think about the relationship between Confucius’ teaching about decorum and etiquette and aspects of internet interaction?

I should also use this as an opportunity to talk about the decorum of how students address professors, not only general email etiquette, but the particular inappropriateness of addressing female professors in a less respectful manner than their male counterparts. Then again, perhaps I should just address that on the syllabus, as another academic recently shared on Facebook that they did, apparently with some positive results. Not that I cannot do both…it is not as though most students will have read that part of the syllabus by the time we get to it in class!

On civility and freedom of speech (both issues that it will be interesting to discuss comparatively across different cultural and national contexts in my class) see Sheila Kennedy’s recent blog post on the topic, in which she wrote:

This nation’s Founders understood that all ideas, no matter how noxious, should be available for discussion.They didn’t protect speech because they underestimated the danger bad ideas could pose; they knew how powerful –and dangerous–words and ideas could be. They protected free expression because they understood that giving government the authority to decide which ideas are acceptable—to decide what sort of speech should be permitted– was far more dangerous.

But that’s where civility comes in. If free speech is to achieve its purpose—if it is meant to facilitate a process in which citizens consider and vet all ideas, consider all perspectives—we need to listen to each other. Insults, labeling, dismissing, racial “dog whistles”—all those hallmarks of incivility—make it impossible to have the kinds of genuine conversations and productive disagreements that the First Amendment is intended to foster.

Screaming invective across political or religious divides actually undermines the purpose of the First Amendment’s Free Speech provisions. Is such speech protected? Absolutely. Is it useful? Absolutely not.

One could say much the same thing about the classroom. One may desire to give students maximal freedom to express any and all viewpoints. But without any counterbalance, that might simply silence some and perhaps most students, as some are allowed to dominate in unhelpful ways. Ultimately I do think that we sometimes must choose between our ideals, in particular freedom of speech and fostering meaningful, beneficial, and inclusive dialogue, as I’ve said before.

I’m also planning on giving the course a strong digital and information literacy focus. Censorship in China provides a good opportunity to talk about search engines and results in terms of content, technology, algorithms, bias, and more.

Here are some other perspectives you might not be hearing in the news:

The role of students and educators in the Hong Kong protests

Truth from facts in regard to Hong Kong: Liu Xiaoming (Chinese ambassador to UK)

476,000 people rally in Hong Kong to say “no” to violence

Disney star calls for boycott

Use of fake Twitter accounts to sow discord

Data Leviathan: China’s Burgeoning Surveillance State

Also of interest is a new textbook for high school students about Islam, focusing on combatting misinformation.

In the spring when I teach South Asian Civilizations, there may be opportunity for a similar focus on the latest news, depending on how current events unfold between now and then.

Also of interest:

Why more and more people are looking to work with and in China

My Butler colleagues on understanding the trade war

Somewhat related to Mencius’ view on human nature:

Humans Are Wired for Goodness

And again for next semester:

Kashmir: a tale of two mothers

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