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ImageThe blogosphere can be horrible. Editing an online news magazine means that I do a lot of reading and, I have to say, there are many times when I am glad to be doing so from the relative safety of my office.

The virtual world seems to have been hijacked by people who hide behind nicknames and initials to unleash vitriol, hate and - what probably upsets me just as much - pretty awful spelling and grammar onto the world. People who are more than ready to tell you what they think and yet not so quick to confess who they are. Sometimes, the best thing about computers is the delete button.

When did it become impossible to argue a point or disagree with an opinion without being, well, disagreeable? When did it become okay to savage someone along with their opinion?

Reality Check

The explosion of reality television shows that invite us to witness public humiliation, heap abuse on those we despise (although, of course, we've never met them) and vote out those we deem not good enough, is uncomfortably close to the gladiator sports that once saw Christians thrown to the lions in front of bloodthirsty crowds.

Things are not much better when you look at what is happening in politics the world over. Simply having a different political opinion seems to be reason enough for some to demonise those on the other side of the political spectrum. Providing a country with wise and compassionate leadership seems to take a back seat to demonstrating how intellectually superior one party's position is vis a vis the others. Reports of stormed parliaments and brawling MPs scarcely seem to raise eyebrows in our morally anaesthetised times.

When did it become impossible to argue a point or disagree with an opinion without being, well, disagreeable? When did it become okay to savage someone along with their opinion?


Now there is an argument that says that once you put something out into cyberspace, you'd better be ready for people to express their opinions about it and take it on the chin.

As a writer, I don't mind people disagreeing with my point of view and I'm all for debating positions. What can be (depending on my mood) amusing, pitiful or simply irritating is when people display downright bad manners. Disagree to your heart's content but please don't imagine that badly spelled and barely veiled abuse enhances your position in the slightest. Constructive comments offer more insight than cutting commentary and hiding behind anonymity, while it ensures that one is not accountable for their opinion, also makes the commentator irrelevant.

Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of The New Republic, has been quoted as saying: "The Internet is like closing time at a blue-collar bar in Boston. Everyone's drunk and ugly and they're going to pass out in a few minutes."

Global Rudeness

This phenomenon of incivility is not confined, it appears, to any one country or culture. Anyone listening to the FM stations broadcasting across some African countries may wonder what on earth has happened to our traditional respect for our institutions and, yes, leaders.

While some of our leaders have probably earned at least a part of the opprobrium heaped upon them on the airwaves and over the internet, we would do well to remember that trashing an institution sets up a dangerous precedent; by the time 'our' man or woman is in charge, the basis upon which we would expect others to respect their position will have been eroded or irreparably damaged.

Recent surveys in the United States have provided evidence about the concern of Americans over the erosion of civility in modern life, whether in government, business, media or online. In an article by Sam Ali in the New York Times, 65% of Americans, according to a poll by Weber Shandwick, say that lack of civility is a major problem in the country and that the negative tone has worsened during the financial crisis and recession.

"The Internet is like closing time at a blue-collar bar in Boston. Everyone's drunk and ugly and they're going to pass out in a few minutes."


Nearly half those surveyed said they were tuning out from the most fundamental elements of democracy - government and politics - because of incivility and bullying behaviour.

Pier M. Forni, author of "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude" and director of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, was quoted in the article as saying, "In today's America, incivility is on prominent display: in the schools, where bullying is pervasive; in the workplace, where an increasing number are more stressed out by co-workers than their jobs; on the roads, where road rage maims and kills; in politics, where strident intolerance takes the place of earnest dialogue; and on the web, where many check their inhibitions at the digital door."

Well, is it any wonder that incivility is becoming a global phenomenon? To achieve civility as an output, the input has to consist of balance, compromise and giving respect to the opinion of others. When certain sections of the media decide that only the sensational will gain the attention of a restless audience long enough for them to buy a paper or click onto a link, balance tends to get somewhat lost in the mix. The old adage 'Never let facts get in the way of a good story' seems to be the guiding principle of far too many publications.

Is it any wonder, therefore, when politicians insist on ideology over what is good for the people they are elected to serve, that compromise is positioned as a dirty word, the coward's way out and proof of a lack of principles?

Incivility and Stress

And what in the world are we teaching our children? As experts in civility point out, it is difficult for society to expect or demand that teenagers and children stop bullying and tormenting one another, given the example they have of the behaviour of adults and political leaders.

According to Forni, the onslaught of rude, bullying and uncivil behaviour, which is made more intense by the constant presence of the Internet and social-networking sites such as Facebook, adds to the stress people feel and can lead to tragic consequences.

Students who are bullied, whether online or in person, says Forni, face an increased risk of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and even suicide. Left unchecked, incivility and bullying behaviour can also often be a precursor to physical violence. Such violence is not only seen on the streets but also at work where, according to the US Department of Labour, there are about 1.8 million acts of physical violence in the American workplace in any given year.

A string of suicides by teenagers at Rutgers University brought even more urgency to its launch in October of Project Civility, a two-year initiative to engage students in a series of activities and discussions aimed at cultivating an environment of courtesy and compassion. The project, coordinated by Kathleen Hull, director of the Byrne Family First-Year Seminars, and Senior Dean of Students Mark Schuster, hinges on personal responsibility.

"While individuals may not be able to change the world, they can make a difference in their small corner of it," says Hull. "We are living in a time of great uncertainty (but) all we can control is our own behaviour. We can't change the world and stop wars and make everything better, but we can control how we act and how we respond.'"

A Civil Society

Let's put some balance back into our discourse, both online and offline. Any individual that speaks or writes is by necessity doing it from a limited perspective i.e. their own. It would be the height of arrogance or blindness to assume that everyone feels the same way and comments are invited so that others can share their views, from their equally limited perspectives. People are entitled to their opinions without being sneered at, insulted or derided.

Just because the technology exists to enable us to speak to thousands of people, it shouldn't require us to 'say' online that which we wouldn't say when facing someone. Hiding behind the keyboard doesn't advance our goals or our society. If the measure of our society is the measure of our civility, you have to wonder whether technology is really serving us well.

I have to wonder sometimes; were we always like this and lacked the microphone or have we been emboldened, like unchecked bullies, to say it like (how we think) it is? One rule of thumb might be that if you wouldn't say it in front of your mother, you shouldn't be saying it.

Being civil doesn't mean being a wimp or not standing up for what you believe in. It doesn't mean that one can't be assertive or have convictions.

"Civility is not a sign of weakness," as the late US President John F. Kennedy once said. Civility means treating others respectfully, no matter what we think of them or what we feel they deserve.

It's time to check ourselves and put our traditional values back into our discourse. Instead of shooting the messenger, shoot down the message. It is time for all of us to take personal responsibility for what we say and how we say it and return our societies to reason.

It is, after all, the season of goodwill to all men.

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