Civility and the New Media

The Knights of Columbus has an ongoing Campaign for Civility that aims to promote a more civil discourse in American politics, and I just contributed two pieces to their efforts. The goal is to dial down the rancor that characterizes so much political dialog, and which has contributed to the hardening divisions between ideological opponents. Civility is not always easy, and there are times where the line between being clear and direct and just being a nasty bastard are a bit blurry. (I pretty much live on that line.) I talked about some of these issues in my follow-up to the last dustup among Catholics online, and some correspondents found this to be an incoherent position:

A dozen times a week–at least–I read of some new outrage by Obama and my first thought is: this is an awful man. And I stop myself, because I honestly don’t know what kind of man he is at all. I know only what the media projects, which may or may not tally with reality. We can’t make the mistake of demonizing our ideological opponents. It’s not just wrong and un-Christian: it leads to sloppy thinking.

So, while I think Obama is a man who does awful things, I don’t think he’s an awful man. If that distinction seems meaningless to you, then you’ve failed basic philosophy, not to mention basic Christianity.

My point is that we need to get Augustinian about this if we’re going to live and thrive together in this nation. We share our country with people who hold views we may find repellent. I continue to be baffled that any Catholic with a tiny flicker of conscience could vote for Obama, but they would probably find it equally baffling that I’m still considering a vote for Romney. There are indeed “two Americas,” and we don’t really understand each other anymore. But we have to keep trying. We will continue to live together in this country, and we need to find some way to work together as well.

My small contribution to the Knights’ effort focuses on the impact of the internet on political discourse. The first piece is called “Civility and the New Media,” and talks about the warping effect of instant news, social media, and comboxes on the way people interact. An excerpt:

Civility: Do we really want it?

The simple fact is this: For all we express concern about incivility, many people are drawn to it because it tends to be interesting. Headline writers know this, so even the mildest comments about a political opponent are often cued by aggressive buzzwords. People don’t just “criticize” or “remark.” They “attack.” They “slam.” They “pound.” They “rip.” This isn’t the vocabulary of political dialog or journalism: It’s the vocabulary of professional wrestling.

On the Internet, articles on contentious issues, or of primarily prurient interest, always get the most clicks, which translates into money. Ask any blogger what draws the highest traffic, and the answer is one word: controversy. (Next most popular: sex.)

We like to think we’re better than that. We like to think we’re urged on by the “better angels of our nature” to value reasonable discourse, good manners, courtesy, calm, and gentility.

Yet we can’t escape our fallen nature. There’s a vicarious thrill when one of “our guys” gets off a good one at the expense of someone on The Other Side. That’s not always incivility, but it tends to imitate a chain reaction than ends in incivility. Godwin’s Law is confirmed again and again: If any online discussion continues for long enough, someone will inevitably be compared to Hitler. The trend of an online conversation is always downward, into incivility.

The other is more of a sidebar on tips to consider when commenting online, called “A More Civil Internet.” I make a habit of violating most of these suggestions several times a week, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a worthy ideal.

[Thanks to The Boss and Gerald Korson for making these pieces happen.]


Like Patheos Catholic on Facebook!


Your Facebook Wall, Circa 1935 Brings the Stupid
Bernie Sanders Is Ron Paul For Lefties
Is Transracialism The Next Frontier of Identity Politics?
About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.