Blurred Lines: Unsocial Networking & the Downfall of Civility

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Maybe it’s just me, but it’s seems like there was a time when we Americans were a little more tolerant of each other.  You know, like when a losing political party waited a decent interval before launching a scorched-earth campaign to destroy their successors.  When people died–even deeply flawed people–most of us remembered the part where our parents told us not to speak ill of the dead. Or like when a friend, acquaintance or virtually anyone along your “six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon” scale would make a profound statement, ranted about a pet peeve or promoted a personal manifesto – time was when we didn’t feel we had to be so lightning quick to retaliate or muster against the “musings of infidels”.

Seems like fewer and fewer people take the time any more to do some soul-searching to try to understand why they agree or disagree with fellow social networkers. I’m not entirely sure when all this began to break down, but it feels like we are so very far away from the era when most people agreed on certain basic notions of civic order; like it’s probably a bad idea to have people carrying guns to political rallies or high school basketball games, for that matter. Everybody agreed that habeas corpus was a damned good idea and that John Wayne never drew first.  While many folks will be quick to say that guns are one of those necessary evils that, in the wrong hands, are a real threat to society – I think I can make a pretty good case that the same analogy can be made for social networking tools. You see, any tool used with malice in one’s heart can be considered a weapon. Knee-jerk reactions to someone’s point-of-view who doesn’t match your own, incendiary attacks on one’s character and labeling divergent schools of thought as “the problem” doesn’t make you a reformer or crusader – it makes you a reactionary with weapons of mass distraction. There is neither anything noble nor civil in that.

Thanks to the internet and social media -we now need don our flame suits and bulletproof vests to venture into the comments section of virtually any social media space or follow some of our perpetually aggrieved internet pundits on Facebook or Twitter to see that the stream of social discourse has become polluted beyond all productive use. I’ll refrain from citing specific examples of people, places or things because I’m really talking about are the “un-social” side of social media. Besides, an endless supply of hair-raising posts and tweets are easy to locate.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I think there is a place for social networking and its positive side can bring people together, raise awareness around a cause and be a true catalyst for change. But, you see, success in those can be directly attributed to the recognition and respect for a basic premise: civility. Civility isn’t about censorship—it’s about creating a place where personal attacks, insults or threats are seen as unacceptable. Discourse should be civil and useful, and it should always focus on the ideas instead of the groups and individuals behind those ideas.

Think about this for minute – Isn’t the idea of having a friends list on Facebook to have people on your list who are actually friends? Or at the least someone you have some degree of appreciation and respect for? Has “friend” become a relative definition subject to interpretation? Can we not disagree, dissent, or have a debate without utter disdain and disrespect? If you are commenting on a thread then you need to remember that you are, allegedly, a friend to this person…or that you are at the least responding to a mutual friend of your friend. I think before people type they should stop and ask themselves, “Is this what I would say if this person was sitting face-to-face with me? Or might I choose my words more carefully?” I’m all for open discussion, but it can be done minus the sanctimony and just plain rudeness. Believe me, I am at times more than tempted to jump into the fray. My hands frequently hover over the keyboard, twitching in anticipation of virtually slapping someone into place after they have responded condescendingly to another. I guess I just learned to breathe deeply and walk away for a while. I am learning to instead type a polite response advocating the right to agree politely to disagree. I’m trying to do my part to start a movement toward a return to kindness in social media interaction. I hope others will join me in remembering that we are discoursing not with machines, laptop-to-laptop or tablet-to-tablet, but that we are having discussions with the people behind the screens. People matter and there’s often a mighty fine line between free-speech and defamation. Reap what you sow and choose dignity.

I may gain some friends or lose a few of them as a result of this post, but that’s the point, isn’t it? I’d rather either reap the rich rewards of friendship or simply respect that some folks don’t agree with me as a result of a simple click than getting sucked into a pointless battle where no one wins and everybody loses. All this wailing and gnashing of teeth just isn’t my thing. There are more enjoyable and productive things to do with my life.