More Respectful Public Dialogue Is Needed
Social Media and the Online World Can Contribute to a Lack of Civility in Discussing Politics
There is this commentary thread on Easton Patch about the U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts between Senator Scott Brown and challenger Elizabeth Warren.
Discussion has gotten heated on it. Thursday morning, a participant in the thread, who goes by the user name “Fiscal Conservative”, started his thread with this line: “ENOUGH ALREADY!!!! Can we just relax until this election is over?”
I hear you, Fiscal Conservative. And I am sure many fiscal liberals hear you – and agree with you as well.
It is getting out of control, the political ranting and acerbic character of our political talking and writing.
One of my closest friends is Jonathan Ford. We grew up together and are both members of the Oliver Ames High School Class of 1981. Jonathan holds a big job with Cargill, a multinational corporation based in Minnesota.
A component of Jonathan's job involves government relations – and has involved trip to various seats of power, including Washington D.C.
Jonathan recently made this post online: “One of my DC friends commented that there is a 'mean' spirit in Washington, the worst he has ever seen in a career that has spanned many administrations.”
The comment of my friend's friend speaks to a very troubling condition in this country. Very troubling.
Then again, for a long, long time society has bemoaned the bad attitudes, nastiness, name calling, and dearth of civility in politics that is resident at even at the highest levels.
And, indeed, I have often thought that we overplay the notion that politics has become a lot more mean spirited than in the past.
In this column, which was first posted in this space on August 24, 2011, I cited the work of John J. Miller, a professor of journalism at Hillsdale College, who in a story he had recently written for the New York Post, described how not long after the first inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, the new president was called all sorts of rotten things from many directions, including from a Virginia congressman, who referred to Lincoln as “a cross between sandhill crane and an Andalusian jackass.”
That's not nice.
Then again, tough to beat this vicious language that John Adams, a U.S. founding father, used to describe Thomas Paine, another founding father of our republic: “a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf.”
Yet maybe the name calling and personal attacks are worse today. I'll leave it open that this could be the case.
Craziness from both the left and right is rampant in this land.
And I will say this – that there is a scary growth of public vulgar political and social discourse fomented from the left that outpaces and eclipses that that comes from the right. The right has its equally detestable thinking and utterances – and also thinking and utterances a lot worse than what the left puts out – but those that come from the right aren't expressed nearly at the level or through as many media and public outlets as are those from the left.
What supports and engenders hurtful commentary and discussion is the online and electronic world in which we live.
Even 20 years ago, almost all personal political discussion was among friends and family, and in person. You were compelled to be a bit more civil, for the words and sentences you used went directly between you and others – and you had to be accountable for the words and sentences immediately.
As well, what you said was distributed – at least initially – to maybe one or two or no more than a few people.
Today you have the opportunity to go home at night and turn on a device and write something about your political leaning or why the candidate you are supporting for president or the U.S. Senate is the best man or woman for the job – and then push a button and have what you wrote viewable around the word.
This can be good. It can also be bad.
It can be bad when you aren't held immediately accountable for what you write. This lack of accountability is increased one zillion fold when you anonymously throw a comment or thought into cyberspace.
At least in a bylined story (which you are reading now) or on Facebook you have your name attached to what you have written.
Still, even on Facebook or in other social media forums, you make a comment or argue a point, and you do so from remote without that immediacy there – without that, again, accountability there. And this cold and emotionally untethered paradigm encourages us to write and say things, to express sentiments, that we wouldn't if we were in a room with the people to whom the thoughts, sentiments, and notions were directed.
I dare say that for most people, when they are making or arguing a point, or presenting a position, in person, they have a far higher motivation and inclination to be respectful than when they are doing the same online.
And things can get out of hand – especially late at night with a “few” under the belt.
Staying with this train of thought, I was talking to a gentleman recently who was going through a divorce. His attorney asked him if he had a Facebook page. And the guy said yes. The attorney told him to get rid of it, with a primary reason being he didn't want his client one night – when lubed with booze – to say something online about his wife that could come back to haunt him in the divorce proceedings. Smart attorney.
Snarkiness and lack of respect is on the rise in society, with social media fostering much of the biting verbiage and biting give-and-take.
In this hyper-caffeinated political season, it is good – and actually something of a civic imperative for the responsible citizen – to deeply consider how we talk to each other about politics and the where our country is headed.
I have been guilty of using the online forum to express riling language ideas. I am not without fault. More precisely, I am "with" a lot of fault.
But I have also – in whatever humble way – tried to use Facebook and other places online (e.g. Easton Patch) to build understanding and more congenial dialogue.
To that end, and I am a Mitt Romney supporter, and if the governor wins the election, you will not see me going on the web to gloat and do a victory dance. No way. That would be disrespectful to those who voted for President Obama.
So I say and leave you with this. Let us all calm down. Let us seek to be respectful to one another.
There is so much about which all of us can agree.
And just like today – the day after next Tuesday will be one in which more respectful, considerate, and thoughtful talking and writing, along with better listening, are urgently and desperately needed.