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.]


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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.

  • victor

    As always, I am truly amazed by the wisdom of people with whom I am in complete agreement. You have written two exceptionally powerful pieces which complement each other: the more philosophical tone of the first (never pegged you as a phenomenologist, but it works for me! ;-) ) and the practical advice of the second (which I’m halfway tempted to adapt a bit and share around the workplace here). Anyway, thanks for taking the time to write these (even if someone else made that happen).

  • TC

    From Fr John Zuhlsdorf

    A Prayer Before Connecting to the Internet:
    Almighty and eternal God, who created us in Thine image and bade us to seek after all that is good, true and beautiful, especially in the divine person of Thine Only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, grant, we beseech Thee, that, through the intercession of Saint Isidore, Bishop and Doctor, during our journeys through the internet we will direct our hands and eyes only to that which is pleasing to Thee and treat with charity and patience all those souls whom we encounter. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

  • Thomas L. McDonald

    Phenomenologist? Moi? I don’t see it.

  • Ted Seeber

    Will we be seeing these printed in Columbia?

  • julian

    I thought your section on the disembodied person was really good. Another, (and probably related), challenge is having to be concise, (at least in comboxes and FB). Some of the subject matter discussed on the internet really warrants a bit more contemplation than a lot of outlets are really suited for. FB is sort of the bumper sticker of the internet. But even with blogs it can be a challenge to deal with a subject the deserves an essay into a post that will get read. An easy cheat in the new media format is bluntness. Pair that with a culture that is generally oriented towards quick, high intensity sensory blasts and its a wonder that the tone out there isn’t any worse than it already is. I do think Leah Libresco is probably one of the best at packing a dense subject into a compact format without cutting corners on civility or the integrity of the argument.

  • victor

    “The Internet disembodies us. Our opinions, emotions, thoughts, and beliefs are no longer being conveyed along with all the physical cues and social pressures that make such an exchange of ideas possible. … Meaning is lost.”

    Straight out of the Merleau-Ponty playbook, or perhaps that of the greatest phenomenological existentialist philospher of the 20th century, Karol Wojtyła. Don’t feel bad though, if we live long enough and manage to gain an ounce of empathy for another human person, all of us logical positivists wind up phenomenologists at some point.

  • jerry lynch

    Although at this moment I prefer listening to the TV ad promising not one but two thorourghly and foever non-stick pans for just $19.95 as I read this page, I still feel I am getting the gist: be nice .
    I hate when I am without facts and dependent on vague references (and biases), but I remember a while back when Congress was asked to sign a Civility Pledge”: it is my recollection that one person did and that the whole concept got onsite serious objections to such an absurd notion plus threats suggesting this might not be a proper response. Civility. Really?

  • Chuck Bearden

    I would like to read your two pieces from the Campaign for Civility, but the server seems to be redirecting to a non-existent domain. Help?