“Son, don’t let your mouth write a check your behind can’t cash!”
My beloved grandma always volunteered that cautionary counsel whenever I became a bit too boisterous. It was her way of letting me know that continued verbal insolence would beget, um, painful consequences.
And so it is nowadays that I am reminded of Ms. Alma’s admonition whenever I peruse Internet comment sections. Indeed, utterances on said forums routinely abuse our constitutional surety of free speech, with scant regard to repercussions far more grievous than a whuppin’.
At best, many posts can be described simply as mean. But if the topic tilts to, say, race, abortion, gun control or the Affordable Care Act, remarks quickly graduate to boorish, crass and crude enough to make even Jerry Springer wince.
Consider the recent experience of the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s online publication. So inundated last year was cleveland.com with “racist invective” after every report on the case of a 12-year-old black boy killed by a white city police officer that in December it discontinued all comments on stories about the tragedy.
“We don’t fancy our website as a place of hate” but “just about every piece we published (about the incident) immediately became a cesspool of hateful, inflammatory or hostile comments,” wrote Chris Quinn, the site’s vice president of content, explaining the decision.
Besides its likely chilling effect on pragmatic participants, the ramifications of such vulgarity abound – principally the devolving of public discourse and, by extension, common courtesy.
According to the latest installment of Civility in America, an annual survey conducted jointly by public relations giant Weber Shandwick and global marketing firm KRC Research, 94 percent of U.S. residents believe incivility is a problem in our country, and 65 percent say it’s reached “crisis” level. What’s more, nearly four in five of the 1,000 adults polled agreed “uncivil behavior is leading to an increase in violence in America” – a disturbing, yet wholly plausible conclusion, given the bloodshed that’s recently befallen movie theaters, schools, even churches.
Notably, 70 percent of the survey respondents concurred “the Internet encourages uncivil behavior.”
This virtual vitriol undoubtedly contributes to what President Obama, in his last State of the Union address, lamented as the “rancor and suspicion between the (political) parties that has gotten worse instead of better.” Thus it can be argued, too, that Internet nastiness compromises public policymaking – that is, prospective fixes to very real problems vexing our nation and world.
But whereas the President bemoaned his inability to assuage the acrimony, Bridge – in keeping with the quest implied by its name – dares to help span digital dissonance and make online exchanges keener, not meaner.
It’s a noble undertaking that, first, makes me proud to serve on the magazine’s board of advisors and offer a twist on the Golden Rule: Write unto others as you would have them write unto you!
Or, as Ms. Alma lectured, “Think twice, speak once,” recognizing that tone and presentation are essential ingredients to being both heard and taken seriously. Simply put, ask yourself, before pressing send, “Is denigrating someone’s religion or calling them – IN ALL CAPS, NO DOUBT – a monkey, pimp, thug, murderer, damn liberal, damn conservative, fill in the blank, actually contributing to a healthy exchange?”
While you’re at it, take off the mask. Enough already with posting coarse comments under pseudonyms, silly monikers and cartoon characters; rather, wo/man up, and divulge your real name and city. As a matter of fact, Internet publications should require such as a condition for engagement.
Comment sections also might contemplate censorship, incongruous as that may sound to the ambition of a free press.
Sure, 18th century French philosopher Voltaire would argue that content editors are duty bound to “defend to the death” free speech. But today they also shoulder social and moral responsibilities to insulate the public from smut. 21st Century philosopher Big Sean might say it this way: Don’t use my forum, if you can’t exercise decorum!
Besides, it’s not like extreme voices would be left wanting for a place to share their diatribes. It’s called Facebook – a sphere that is largely theirs to share with friends and not necessarily for mass consumption.
Site moderators also might mimic hockey and relegate routine violators of established forum rules to the equivalent of a cyber penalty box.
Or perhaps they could assign comparable comments to receptacles, with movie-like ratings, to forewarn readers which remarks are G versus XXX.
Or heck, I don’t know. Truth is, scoring a comprehensive solution to Internet cacophony may prove elusive.
The only thing for certain is we’ll only reach resolution and reflect what’s truly best in us by respectfully – and ironically – engaging in the activity that got us here in the first place: Talking.
Bridge readers mostly keep it classy in our comment sections, but we’re interested in knowing what you think of ours, good and bad. And feel free to contribute your own comment-section stories and opinions: Why you do or don’t participate, how we (and other sites) might improve them overall. This is a conversation, so please, join in.