“Public University’s Rules Now Prohibit Offensive Facial Expressions”

A friend had sent me this link with a short comment: We’ve lost our minds! Apparently, administrators at the University of Montana Western had published a policy in which students could be disciplined, or even suspended for making certain facial expressions. The article includes this chilling thought: “When George Orwell famously wrote about a dystopian future where your every thought is monitored, he shouldn’t have set it in Great Britain. It would have been much more accurate had he instead written about American college campuses.”

I let out a resigned sigh as I prepared to forward the article to like-minded friends who are equally concerned that we may be coddling the upcoming generation. Just as I was about to hit send, I felt the clear conviction of the Holy Spirit. What’s the other side of this story?

Some context may be helpful. In addition to being a professor of communication at a Christian university in southern California, I serve as the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project which seeks to reintroduce civility, compassion, and understanding to our disagreements. It was the understanding part that I was most leaving out. Proverbs states the “first to speak seems right, until someone comes forward and cross-examines” (18:17). If the administrators at Montana Western were allowed to respond to the article I was about to pass along, what would they say? The answer was one click away.

The civility standards on the Montana Western website begins with a quote:

“Civility is not a sign of weakness. Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.” The quote—by John Fitzgerald Kennedy—surprised me and made me open to reading more.

The document listed a set of expectations of which students, faculty, and staff were to maintain when engaging those of a different point of view. Expectations included trust (talk to, not about, others), listen (employ active listening by giving undivided attention to speakers), understand (view conflicts as learning opportunities), and responsibility (be accountable and take ownership of all your communication). While I was impressed by the list, I kept an eye out for the alarming prohibition against facial expressions. It came under the expectation of trust: “When discussions become heated and passionate, they should never become mean, nasty or vindictive in spoken or printed or emailed words, facial expressions, or gestures.” The document ended by informing readers that anyone who ignored or purposefully went against these standards could be disciplined—including possible suspension.

I was surprised by what I had just read. To be honest, I found myself resonating with this call to civility. The article and the university standards have stayed with me for weeks, and illustrates a key attitude that drives the Winsome Conviction Project.

Be a Chimp, not a Rhino

Rhinoceroses are notoriously short sighted—it is said they can’t tell the difference between a tree and a human from 50 feet away. And that explains their aggressive behavior. If they don’t recognize it, they instinctively lower their head and ram it, harming the object, and potentially the rhino. It’s hard on both the trees and the humans. Chimps are different. When chimps see something they don’t recognize, they go investigate. They pick it up, prod it, and play with it. If they decide it’s not for them, they set it down and pick up something else. If someone shares an opinion you don’t understand, be curious, investigate, and ask questions. Don’t ram them.

When I first read that students could be suspended for making facial expressions I was in full rhino mode. My form of electronic ramming would be to pass along the original article with my own snarky comment. Being a chimp and reading Montana Western’s civility statement in their own words helped me understand the context of their overall stance, including certain facial expressions.

Seek to Charitably Understand Their Most Controversial Point

When disagreeing with others, there often surfaces one issue or point that seems absurd to you. It’s here we need to be the most chimp-like. Try to understand how this point might make sense. Whether you agree or not with taking a stand on negative facial expressions, in what context might it make sense? Imagine teaching a public speaking class where students are allowed to select their own topics. One student picks a topic she knows is controversial. After her speech, she tells you how discouraging it was that one student in the back made dismissive, or rude facial expressions during her speech. From then on, you pay attention to him. And, she’s right. If he doesn’t agree he rolls his eyes, turns his body away from the speaker, and even mutters comments under his breath. Would you address this student? And, what if they refused to stop giving—via non-verbals—negative feedback? Might you eventually ask them to leave the class? If so, you’ve basically paraphrased the trust expectation articulated by Montana Western.

Be Curious to All Parties

After reading Montana Western’s civility standards I was tempted to take a rhino approach to the—in my estimation—harsh description of the standards that opened this chapter. Yet, didn’t that author also deserve my curiosity? What fueled his strong description of a set of standards that seem fairly reasonable? Which of his concerns resonated with me? For example, who gets to determine what constitutes an offensive or negative facial expression? Might some be overly singled out due to racial prejudice? I regularly have students of color tell me that their non-verbals are often seen as aggressive, or angry by others. Being inquisitive is not merely reserved for those with whom we agree.

When presented with an idea that seems absurd, the first step is to resist reacting, but respond with curiosity and questions. As we are reminded by the ancients, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13). In the age of the rhino, it’s sometimes prudent to be a chimp.

Tim Muehlhoff a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, CA and co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project designed to reintroduce civility into our private and public disagreements. Tim is also an author whose latest books are Winsome Conviction: Disagreeing without Dividing the Church and Eyes to See: Finding God’s Common Grace in Unsettled Times.