The blogosphere can be horrible. Editing an online news magazine means that I do a lot of reading and, I must say, I am glad to be doing so in the relative safety of my office.
The virtual world seems to have been hijacked by people who hide behind nicknames and initials to unleash vitriol, hate and – what probably upsets me just as much – awful spelling and grammar onto the world. People who are more than ready to tell you what they think and yet not so quick to confess who they are. Sometimes, the best thing about computers is the delete button.
When did it become impossible to argue a point or disagree with an opinion without being, well, disagreeable? When did it become okay to savage someone along with their opinion?
The explosion of reality television shows that invite us to witness public humiliation, heap abuse on those we despise (although, of course, we’ve never met them) and vote out those we deem not good enough, is uncomfortably close to the gladiator sports that once saw Christians thrown to the lions in front of bloodthirsty crowds.
Things are not much better when you look at what is happening in politics the world over in our morally anaesthetised times. Simply having a different political opinion seems to be reason enough for some to demonise those on the other side of the political spectrum. Providing a country with wise and compassionate leadership seems to take a back seat to demonstrating how intellectually superior one party’s position is vis a vis the others.
Now there is an argument that says that once you put something out into cyberspace, you’d better be ready for people to express their opinions about it and take it on the chin.
As a writer, I don’t mind people disagreeing with my point of view and I’m all for debating positions. What can be (depending on my mood) amusing, pitiful or simply irritating is when people display downright bad manners. Disagree to your heart’s content, but please don’t imagine that badly spelled and barely veiled abuse enhances your position in the slightest. Constructive comments offer more insight than cutting commentary, and while hiding behind anonymity ensures that one is not accountable for their opinion, it also makes the commentator irrelevant.
Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has been quoted as saying: “The Internet is like closing time at a blue-collar bar in Boston. Everyone’s drunk and ugly and they’re going to pass out in a few minutes.”
This phenomenon of incivility is not confined, it appears, to any one country or culture. Anyone listening to the FM stations broadcasting across some African countries may wonder what on earth has happened to our traditional respect for our institutions and, yes, leaders.
While some of our leaders have probably earned at least a part of the opprobrium heaped upon them on the airwaves and over the internet, we would do well to remember that trashing an institution sets up a dangerous precedent; by the time ‘our’ man or woman is in charge, the basis upon which we would expect others to respect their position will have been eroded or irreparably damaged.
Recent surveys in the United States have provided evidence about the concern of Americans over the erosion of civility in modern life, whether in government, business, media or online. In an article by Sam Ali in the New York Times, 65% of Americans, according to a poll by Weber Shandwick, say that lack of civility is a major problem in the country and that the negative tone has worsened. Nearly half those surveyed tune out from the most fundamental elements of democracy – government and politics – because of incivility and bullying behaviour.
Pier M. Forni, author of “The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude” and director of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, was quoted in the article as saying, “In today’s America, incivility is on prominent display: in the schools, where bullying is pervasive; in the workplace, where an increasing number are more stressed out by co-workers than their jobs; on the roads, where road rage maims and kills; in politics, where strident intolerance takes the place of earnest dialogue; and on the web, where many check their inhibitions at the digital door.”
Well, is it any wonder that incivility is becoming a global phenomenon? To achieve civility as an output, the input must consist of balance, compromise and giving respect to the opinion of others. When certain sections of the media operate on the click-bait principle, the adage ‘Never let facts (alternative or otherwise) get in the way of a good story’ seems to be the guiding principle today.
Incivility and stress
And what in the world are we teaching our children? How do we expect or demand that young people stop bullying and tormenting one another, given the example of adults and some political leaders?
According to Forni, rude, bullying and uncivil behaviour, especially on the Internet and social media, adds to the stress people feel and can lead to tragic consequences. Students who are bullied, whether online or in person, says Forni, face an increased risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicide. Left unchecked, incivility and bullying behaviour can also often be a precursor to physical violence. Such violence is not only seen on the streets but also at work and on student campuses, says Kathleen Hull, director of the Byrne Family First-Year Seminars, and Senior Dean of Students Mark Schuster, and demands greater personal responsibility. “While individuals may not be able to change the world, they can make a difference in their small corner of it,” says Hull. “We are living in a time of great uncertainty (but) all we can control is our own behaviour. We can’t change the world and stop wars and make everything better, but we can control how we act and how we respond.’”
A civil society
Let’s put some balance back into our discourse, both online and offline. Any individual that speaks or writes is by necessity doing it from a limited perspective i.e. their own. Not everyone feels the same way about things and comments are invited so that others can share their views, from their equally limited perspectives. People are entitled to their opinions without being sneered at, insulted or derided.
Just because the technology exists, it shouldn’t make us say online what we would never say in person. If the measure of our society is the measure of our civility, does technology’s ability to allow us to hide behind the keyboard really serve us well? And were we always like this but lacked the microphone, or have we been emboldened, like unchecked bullies, to say it like (how we think) it is? One rule of thumb might be that if you wouldn’t say it in front of your mother, you shouldn’t be saying it.
Civility demands that we treat others respectfully, no matter what we think of them or what we feel they deserve. Being civil doesn’t mean being a wimp or not standing up for what you believe in; as John F. Kennedy said, “Civility is not a sign of weakness.”
It’s time to check ourselves and put our traditional values back into our discourse and, instead of shooting the messenger, shoot down the message. It is time to take personal responsibility for what we say and how we say it.
Frances Williams: Editor of ReConnect Africa and CEO of Interims for Development.
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