The Death of Civility

From the lineage of the inventions of Morse and Bell, we are now inundated with instantaneous means by which to communicate. Of late, one such means has been the growth of social networking sites on the internet. These sites, while they may vary in the specifics of who they attract, serve to form more far flung communities than previously possible. Prior, a social system may be no larger than a neighborhood, or a town. Now, through these sites, we are globally interwoven not only with our own friends and family, but with their friends and family, and so on.

I participate in several of these social networking communities, and generally enjoy them. However, I’ve noted that the distance from the keyboard to the community seems to reduce the civility of posters. It’s as if the lack of direct interaction precludes them from believing that any boorish or otherwise undesirable behavior is acceptable, because they see no immediate consequence – and often no consequence at all.

Recently, a friend of mine posted pictures from a trip he’s on of historical monuments and other sites from Washington, D.C. I commented positively on them, as I believe that the mall in D.C., is one of the most beautiful man-made places on earth. The site sends me email notification of any other comments on that thread. The next notification I got was a comment made by a friend of my friend (someone I do not know, personally), who found it necessary to ask if my friend had performed a bodily function on the grave of a political leader. To be frank, I was shocked at how casually this person had a) hijacked my friend’s photo link with his own political statement, and b) that he chose to do so in such a crude manner. Unable to contain myself, I offered back that I thought his comment was “a bit juvenile.” To paraphrase Mr. Twain, I should have known better than to argue with a fool. His reply contained a tirade on the policies of the former political leader, using profane language to do so. He saw no fault in his behavior (or at least professed none), and in my opinion, does not see how he took advantage of our mutual friend. In two comments, he took a joyous event for our mutual friend, and turned it into a profane political rant.

At this point, I knew it made no sense to reply for two reasons. First, and foremost, I did not want to continue to denigrate my friend’s picture gallery. It was not made for political discourse – especially of the ilk that had just been applied to it. Second, because at this point, I understood that, to finish Mr. Twain’s thought, others would not be able to tell who was the fool. Third, it was completely clear that I was dealing with a closed mind, who is more interested in being right, regardless of the cost.

I wonder, though, if something like this would have taken place 50 years ago in the much smaller and much more personal communities of the time. I can’t imagine a group of neighbors sharing photographs over the back fence and having one of them decide to be this uncivil. It strikes me as very likely that the proximity of the other members of the group would enforce civil behavior. It seems that there is rarely that level of consequence, in these modern online social networks.

In closing, my resolve is to make sure that when I post, I strive more to understand others, and to remember that it is not all about me, nor my opinions on these sites (this blog is different – it is expressly for the purpose of having a bully pulpit). Additionally, I will refrain from commenting on someone else’s uncivil post, publicly. If they don’t get it well enough to not post it in the first place, they won’t get it when I bring it to their attention.

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