The most recent events in our Australian government have led me to think a good deal about how our young women will consider politics and choosing public roles in government in the future. Females have much to offer as parliamentary members and in public life in general. One of the concerns I have is that our young women will choose to enter careers where they believe there is less public scrutiny on them as individuals and more opportunities to have their opinions heard.

The original definition of the word ‘civility’ means citizens willing to give of themselves for the good of the city, for the good of the commonwealth, for the larger good. Dr Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse in Washington DC, believes that civility does not mean appeasement or avoiding important differences; it means listening and talking about those differences with respect.

In a healthy democracy, all people need to listen and talk about their differences with respect. Unfortunately, if we consider our own Australian government and governments around the world, we do not always have positive examples of these respectful discussions.

In light of this, I would like to give some consideration to the importance of civility within our School community and the valuable lessons our students can learn which will encourage them to be citizens willing to give of themselves for the ‘larger good’. Within our own School we have a diverse community where families and their daughters come from different cultural backgrounds and have different values and opinions about a broad range of issues.

We should be promoting civil discourse amongst our students to enable them to voice these diverse opinions. At the same time, we must also promote the use of appropriate language during these communications which is not rude, threatening or intolerant. One of the negative aspects of social media platforms and emails is that there is a propensity to use language which fails to recognise that the audience is a person with feelings. I believe that the key to healthy civil discourse on any issue is to challenge ideas and positions, but to never make such challenges personal.

There are countless examples within the public arena where personal attacks are made against an individual or group of individuals because they have different opinions, have made particular life choices or in some way do not fit within the boundaries of those making the personal attacks. These individuals are not promoting civil discourse that allows for open and transparent debate about issues or differences of opinion. Rather, these personal attacks shut down honest and open discussion because they draw attention away from the issue at hand. Personal attacks on individuals not only cause personal distress to the individual, but will eventually stop them from entering into any kind of civil discourse where they can offer their point of view.

American journalist, Steven Petrow, tells the story of waiting in line at a bakery until there was only one scone left. When it came to his turn, he asked for the scone and a person behind him shouted: ‘That’s my scone! I’ve been waiting in line 20 minutes.’ Steven had also been waiting in line for the same amount of time. He asked the person behind him whether he would like to share the scone. They shared the scone and another pastry, and while they did not have very much in common they spoke and formed an acquaintanceship.

There are countless times in our lives when we become focused on what we want and choose to ignore the consequences for our family, friends and teachers. The same applies when a group of individuals become exclusive and fail to see the impact of their behaviour on other people. In these situations, an individual or a group are unwilling to listen to the opinions and perspectives of others. We have seen the devastating impact that the power of political or religious groups can have on a country and its people. In the environment of a School community, the actions and opinions of a group who are unwilling to consider the ‘larger good’ will also have a negative impact on others. The influence of social media is such that when a group of individuals express their opinion or perspective about a matter, it becomes difficult for other individuals to disagree for fear of marginalization or isolation.

As educators we play an important role in supporting our students to establish their own voices and articulate their opinions and perspectives in a respectful environment that enables discourse and debate. One of the most important responsibilities we have is to promote courage and individuality. Each student needs to have the courage to listen to others and to express her own opinions without fear of being shut down or ostracised. We want our students to respect the views and opinions of others and be open to changing their own perspectives.

I believe that young women have an innate desire to make a contribution to their community and to the world. Our girls will be responsible for civil discourse in the years to come and will hopefully have a positive impact in the communities they live in. But in order to do so, we have a responsibility now as a School and as parents to teach them about civility, about listening and talking about difference of opinion and values with respect.

Susan Just