A reader forum on incivility
Some thoughtful reader ruminations about our vicious online culture
A reader forum on incivility
Dick Polman, Inquirer National Political Columnist
Let's hear today from the readers. (Translation: thoughtful readers.) Way back in February, I lamented at great length about the plague of online incivility - specifically, the seemingly growing tendency among the uncivil, on both the left and right, to exult in the deaths, or the deathly illnesses, of those political figures with whom they disagree. That column has generated far more national response than anything else I've written lately, and it's still trickling in, much of it via snail mail. These excerpts constitute an extremely small sampling - but nevertheless, a representative dozen:
Almost all newspaper blogs are overrun by evil commenters, it seems. My solution would be for more newspapers to follow the policy of The New York Times, which accepts civil comments but rejects comments that are nothing more than "personal attacks" and "shouting." Readers also get the chance to "recommend" then posted comments that they like. Is this policy "censorship?" I don't know, but it keeps things civil and it is unique among newspaper blogs, as far as I know.
Out here in Oregon, I used to respond to evil online comments and then decided that I am wasting my time, because the problem is too big and overwhelming. Yet if we give up, we turn this new form of expressing public opinion totally over to "the nasties."
On the far left and far right, a lot of people have very strange opinions on things. But we should just ignore them and get on with life. A former CIA Director testified that terrorism is theater. I believe that the extremists are in their glory when we talk about them and write about them.
Also, I wonder about what motivates public people to subject themselves to the hate and vitriol of public life when they have closets stuffed with fodder for the media. Ted Kennedy, whose illness and death prompted many commenters to rejoice, could have spent the rest of his life managing the fortune and charitable trusts, living in the compounds with Joan and the kids and not having a care in the world. Maybe Ted coped with all the attacks on him by reading only what he wanted to read and hearing only what he wanted to hear - and screening out the extremists. If it worked for him, it could work for us.
It may simply be that the avenues of promulgating incivility are more widespread today than previously. I'm an old guy in Tennessee now, but I recall vividly that when I was a 15-year-old cadet in a military academy at the time of Franklin Roosevelt's death, a number of the sons of Republicans were jubilant.
It appears to me that those on the right are far more prone to extreme incivility. I am old enough to note how many who vilely condemned Roosevelt now cite him as heroic.
I read your column, reprinted in The Denver Post, and was quickly faced with an ugly realization. Yesterday I heard about Dick Cheney's hospitalization and felt giddy. The man disgusts me - and I was immediately excited by, and hopeful about, his health failing. I consider myself a compassionate and moral person but I didn't feel ashamed of my excitement until I read your article this morning. It's easy to lose our humanity in this political climate, and we need to be reminded of our unjustifiably extreme incivility. I will do my best to pass on the reminder.
It is all such a shame. I live in Dallas. Sometimes I read posts from people who are responding to a variety of topics, and their messages are so vile and hateful.
I wonder if the anonymity of the Internet is fueling this. It is upsetting that there are people out there who harbor such bitterness and hate. Do you often think it could be the guy behind you at the coffee shop? Normal looking people?
Here in Dallas, where George W. Bush has settled while he awaits the library being built on the campus of SMU, we who hate what he did to this country fought the urge to go throw shoes at his house (or at the street corner - since security there is tighter than the Olympics), we will practice civility and let him live in peace. No extreme uncivility here. Let's keep talking about this.
I'm a retired Navy commander. There is an old Roman saying: "De mortuis nil nisi bonum decendum est" - in essence, "speak only good of the dead." This phrase is commonly reduced to "nil nisi bonum," and has been cited over the years as good enough reason not to slander or attack those who are dead, or by extension, those who are about to die.
Until our nation's leaders show the way by conducting our nation's affairs like civilized persons, rejecting the chorus of hate, we Americans may slowly slip into a period of physical violence when the verbal violence no longer satisfies the radicals of the left and right.
Thirty years ago, then-House Speaker Tip O'Neill and House Minority Leader Bob Michel were close personal friends who socialized regularly over dinners and cocktails. They disagreed on policies but always worked together to craft legislation. O'Neill was even relieved that Michel survived a tough challenge in 1982 when unemployment was rampant in Michel's district. Democrat O'Neill also invited Ronald Reagan to "pour a cold one" on St. Patrick's Day, an invitation that Reagan readily accepted. Reagan, by the way, told Chris Matthews, "We're all friends after six o'clock."
Alas, those days are long gone. The man who deserves much of the blame is Newt Gingrich. Prior to becoming House Speaker, he'd always equated politics with war. Gingrich didn't believe in associating with Democrats whom he considered the enemy. This wasn't simply about power changing hands; when the GOP took over the Senate in 1981, new Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker still regarded a lot of Democrats as friends. Gingrich could go weeks without even speaking to his counterpart, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, and he certainly didn't extend invitations to socialize. The incivility was such that in 1996, several senators went on "20/20" to state that it was the reason for their retirements. Alan Simpson said he couldn't even have dinner or cocktails with old friends without later hearing vitriolic criticism about cavorting with the enemy.
Civility has disappeared from the public just as it has in politics. One wonders if rudeness in public has fed rudeness in politics or vice versa. Republicans claim to worship the mantle of Reagan. Why they don't emulate his personal civility is a mystery. It was a major reason for his success.
Incivility, to the point of celebrating someone's death, is hardly new. This behavior stretches back through antiquity. The Roman Emperor Augustus refused to bury the bodies of his enemies, insisting "that matter must be settled with the carrion-birds."
If the offenses of Internet-posting troglodytes cause you distress, you would certainly be mortified by the death-celebration visited upon the corpse of Oliver Cromwell, whose body was dug up by the vengeful Charles II. Cromwell’s remains were posthumously executed. His head was then severed from his body, placed on a pole and displayed in front of Westminster Hall from 1661 to the late 1680s.
While the examples I cited are negative, sometimes to be discourteous is the most appropriate course of action. Neville Chamberlain went to great lengths to treat Adolf Hitler with civility and respect; such conduct is now condemned almost universally by historians.
Emily Post would most likely disapprove of the conduct of those who officiated over the Boston Tea Party, yet there was no better response to the intransigence of British tyranny at the time. One of my former English professors had a bumper sticker on her vehicle that read, "Well-behaved women don’t make history." I believe that is true for all people. The meek and accommodating may be more pleasant to interact with, but they rarely change the world, for better or worse.
Venting frustration, sometimes in repugnant language, does not constitute some sort of blasphemy against some sacred moral code. In fact, it's part of public discourse. The human body has some disagreeable biological processes, but they are necessary to our health. So it is with our democracy.
I wonder about the self-contradictory role that some outlets play in fostering this incredible incivility. I'm talking about the online forums that are sponsored by newspapers.
If I wanted to write a "letter to the editor" to a newspaper, I must sign my real name and include contact information, so the paper can contact me to verify that I am really the one who expressed the opinion. Also, knowing that my real name is going to be at the end of my opinion should make me consider (and reconsider) what will go into print. In that format, the newspaper does not feel that I am due any anonymity.
But to post my opinion on a newspaper's online forum, I only need to create an account with a "user name," which could be anything. Then, anything I want to post can go on the site with no concern to me that any reader will know who I am or that I am capable of such a post. In this case, the newspaper protects my anonymity - which leads to the most crass postings.
Secondly, if I were to write a "letter to the editor" for print publication, someone at the paper would screen and edit my letter. Outrageous letters would never be published at all. But again, online, my material is just posted as is, with nothing changed and, as a rule, not even screened.
Why do newspapers allow such a difference in publishing policies between print vs. online forums? Perhaps something as simple as a change in online anonymity policy could have an immediate impact on incivility.
I read your blog daily and I used to try and comment, but it’s very hard to rise above the cacophony of vicious posts from both the right and the left. So why bother. It’s sad, really, that our public discourse has come to this. One would think that in death, regardless of the political affiliation of the deceased, we as a people can agree that even if we disagreed with the political philosophy of the deceased, at least, as in the case of Ted Kennedy, we acknowledge that they serve their constituents and the country well.
I deplore people like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, as well as some on the left, who coarsen the public discourse as a way to line their pockets. I have a problem with those people, because they seek to thwart any attempt at compromise. In the end this behavior may be good for them politically, or financially, but it paralyzes the country.
The Internet is a great tool to expand the ability for people to communicate. Unfortunately, it has also provided an outlet for people who choose to speak knowing that they will never meet the objects of their scorn or hate in person. The same holds for the talking heads who bloviate daily on our TV screens, yet never sit down one-on-one with people they disagree with. What would happen if the bloggers who crowed about Ted Kennedy's impending death spoke those words directly to Vicki Kennedy or Kennedy's children? Or to Bush spokesman Tony Snow's wife and children?
There are a rare few in whom we should exult in their deaths: Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini. Other than that, it is time for these so-called commentators to remember that not only are we created equal, but we all share equally in facing our own death.
Hello from New Mexico. Any of us who might be tempted to post a vicious personal comment should first read "Forgiveness," written by the 19th century John Greenlead Whittier. It has always helped me:
My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!