Changing our Tone

I was surprised this morning to learn that, for the third time, Allegheny College has awarded its Prize for Civility in Public Life.  Surprised not because such a prize has to exist, or even that it is bestowed by my small and picturesque  alma mater.  I was surprised that the college could find anyone worthy of the award in the current vituperative political climate.

Established 2012, the prize recognizes individuals from opposite ends of ideological and political spectrum who advance their perspectives with respect and intellectual rigor rather than rancor.

What makes this year’s award so surprising, though, is that it has been given to not just two individuals, but to twenty. The third annual Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life was awarded to the Women of the Senate – yes, that Senate, the one in Washington, D.C., the one so paralyzed by discord that virtually nothing can get done. These women, the college citation notes, “banded together to help end the 2013 government shutdown, and in so doing helped to show the way toward a more civil climate in Washington D.C., one that continues to provide hopefulness today.”

Clearly, the college sees more reason for hope than I in a new year that so far has seen little more discourse than finger pointing and political posturing in the run up to mid-term elections.

Still, the award does have me thinking about civil discourse, and not surprisingly my starting point is social media.  I have often argued that digital anonymity breeds animosity.  It is easy to throw brick bats about just about anything when you are a nameless, faceless member of the crowd. This is nothing new, of course.  I’ve been tilting with trolls since my earliest days in online media, more than 20 years ago now.

What is concerning, though, is the way in which that online behavior seems to permeate our offline world. Perhaps because it is easy and maybe even more tempting to shout epithets from the faceless crowd, the collective we have mustered the courage to step forward brandishing our same bad temperament in face-to-face encounters. How much easier it is to flip off another driver or, in the worst cases, stand one’s ground than to engage in a constructive if conflict-filled dialog.

I’m not suggesting that social media alone has fostered the mean streets. Racism, recession, social and income inequality, over crowding, even this relentless winter are on a very long list of things all lay a beating on our collective soul. None of this is new, of course. Yet it seems that back in the day, when news traveled as fast as a printing press and the evening news and we kept our calls short because it cost good money to be “on long distance” with family and friends, we held up under the pressure a little better than we do today.

Back in the day, I scoffed a little at a panel of Congressional leaders who deferred to one another, calling out “The Honorable Gentleman” and “My Respected Colleague.” Back in the day, the president was The President, afforded the respect of the office, regardless of the narrowness of the vote count. While all that seems like so much needless pomp and circumstance, it was civil, respectful. It acted as a sort of guard rail between considered words and shoot-from-the-lip vitriol.

That guard rail is gone now, making it so easy to skid from discontent to disrespect to the display of contempt packaged in the shout of “you lie!” as the President of the United States addresses the nation.

As Allegheny’s award makes clear, this isn’t a left or right side of the aisle issue; it is an American issue.

We are represented, presumably by our choice, by adults whose most thoughtful policy argument is that the other guy is worse. They are like children who shout “she hit me first” to deflect attention from their own wrong doing. And we, like kids in a school yard, circle around the fighting bullies to cheer them on.

I don’t miss the by-gone days of slow news and slower and infrequent social interaction. I do, though, long for the civility. If 20 women Senators can stand as acolytes in the darkness of political debate, and if one by one we can refuse to bully or be bullied by the unreasoned and unreasonable argument of politicians, television hosts, or social media trolls, then perhaps we can reclaim a bit of it.

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