What Happened to Civility?

This week, I’m turning over my blog to a guest.  A few weeks ago, after a comment I made on-the-air regarding civility, I got an e-mail from Joe Hanlon, whose message I could not improve upon.  So, with his permission, I’ve decided to share his words with you.  Welcome, Joe, our first guest blogger:

Hi, Dr. Laura!

Long-time listener, first time emailer.  Well, I try to listen as much as I can, but as a math teacher, I’m usually a tad busy when you are on the air.  I catch the last ten minutes of your show on XM a lot.

I caught those last ten minutes today, and heard your comments on civility.  As usual, my reaction to your commentary was “Right on!”  The Internet IS ruining civility by allowing people to say the rudest things under the cover of anonymity and just because they can.  Programs like “The View” foster incivility because rudeness garners ratings and makes money.  The problem is that incivility is oozing out from television and the Internet into everyday discourse, often resulting in harsher, and sometimes physical, incivility.

I tried to stem this tide.  I stuck my finger in this Internet dike by creating a site called, appropriately to this subject, “Civility.”  Previously, I had been posting on a sports team site on topics ranging from the team to baseball in general to politics to religion.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to discuss any of these topics on the Internet without being verbally assaulted with rudeness, name-calling, and vulgarity.  Unfortunately, my reaction was often in kind (or should I say in “Unkind?”).

I didn’t like my Internet persona.  It was very different from my live personality.  In real life, I have very strong opinions and often state them matter-of-factly, but am always careful not to rudely attack the person I am talking to, nor to use profanity.  I naively thought that changing my Internet personality would keep me out of “flame wars” and allow me to participate in heated, but civil, debates.  Wrong.

So, I tried to start a message board whose goal was to promote strong debate while remaining civil.  It worked to the extent that we had several debates in which disagreements were profound, but incivility was kept to an unheard-of minimum.  It failed in the sense that I couldn’t keep it going.  Over time, I had more members joining trying to sell Viagra and pornography than I had members who wanted to debate the hot topics of the day.  I had to move the site to lose the trolls, but the few remaining members didn’t follow.  The site still exists, but has nothing recent posted.  If you’d like to check it out, it’s at www.civility.eye95.org.

The point is that civility doesn’t sell.  Sadly, incivility does.

I still post on the sports site.  I liberally use the “ignore” feature (which means that over half the posts are invisible to me), and I try to remain civil at all times.  I have less [of a] problem with people being uncivil to me; they now know that I won’t fight back (often referred to as “defending” oneself) and that I will simply ignore them.

People who want to be civil have to learn how to live in an uncivil world without becoming infected.  It is hard.  Unfortunately, changing the rest of the world does not seem to be an option.  I keep trying to have some small effect, though.  But, being an idealist is hard, too.

Keep changing the world, one listener at a time.

Joe