Today’s Word on Áccent: CIVILITY

(October is National Bullying Prevention Month)

Words are powerful. Leaders use them to motivate their employees. Marketers use them to get the public to buy a company’s products and services. Christians and Jews believe that words blasted the universe into being. The right words can elicit a smile, offer encouragement, start a marriage, even transform a life. The wrong words can make someone cry, break someone’s heart, destroy a relationship, even start a war.

In searching for a focus for this blog, I have finally alighted on the idea of WORDS. For a site called “Áccent on Words,” it makes sense. As an editor and writer, I work with words for a living. Words are important to me. But really, they’re important to everyone, and even more so in an age when we’re constantly bombarded with them and continually consume them through social media, television, radio and what we choose to read.

My aim is to choose a particular word or phrase as the focus of each new blog post and talk about why our words matter.

The word that has been popping up for me lately is a concept that is often missing from popular discourse: CIVILITY. The main definition given by Merriam-Webster is: “civilized  conduct, especially courtesy and politeness.” Merriam-Webster also gives an example phrase: “bemoaned the decline of civility in our politics.”

How appropriate.

Now, my guess is that for many of you, after reading that phrase, your mind immediately went to a specific government official or political party as being the most guilty of incivility in the public arena.

Yet no matter which side of the aisle you’d like to accuse of incivility in politics, you would be right. Both sides are guilty.

Take a meme that was published on Facebook by a page called Middle American Democrat: “Insane as this will sound, you can be passionately pro-choice and not be ‘pro-abortion.’ You can be outraged seeing toddlers being torn from their parents and put in cages and not be for ‘open borders.’ And you can demand gun laws befitting the circumstances of modern times and not be against the Second Amendment. We are experiencing an epidemic of myopic, partisan ignorance and this beloved country is the worse for it.” One of the responses to this meme was, “This goes both ways. You can be for common sense border control and not be xenophobic or anti-immigrant. You can see the importance of traditional marriage and still love your gay friends and relatives. You can be for smaller government and lower taxes and not be a white supremacist, racist or uncaring towards the poor.”

That the author of this meme felt these words needed to be said, and that the person responding felt the need to explain the other side, tells us something about the current state of our culture. If we have reached the point where we can no longer give a person the benefit of the doubt—based solely on the person’s political affiliation and views—and instead believe that he or she is a decent human being, then we need what used to be called a major attitude adjustment. I would argue that it shows us that we dearly need to learn to practice civility in our public as well as our private conversations.

I have friends and family on both sides of the political spectrum, all decent people. The other day one posted this about Muslim immigrants who he believes want to live under Islamic sharia law within this country: “If you aren’t happy here, then LEAVE. We didn’t force you to come here. We didn’t ask you to come here. So accept the country that accepted you.” Another posted something about conservative anger toward Greta Thunberg (the Swedish teen who decried a generation for a lack of response to climate change), and a comment on the post was, “The irony is the people who are pissed are the same ones who don’t give a rat’s ass about starving kids or Africa or the kids in the cages at the border.”

I wonder in what world either of these statements are true, let alone kind or helpful? As far as I understand, immigrants are subject to U.S. law once they arrive here. And the conservatives I know are caring and generous.

Let’s look at a couple of extreme cases. In 2015, Justine Sacco, a Twitter user with fewer than 200 followers, posted a tweet she meant as a joke. She then got on a plane and traveled for hours without realizing that it had blown up to Twitter’s No. 1 trending post. When she arrived at her destination, she discovered she had suddenly become a world-famous “racist.” In actuality, her intent had been to make fun of the safe bubble Americans tend to live in so far away from the realities of living in the “third-world” country she was about to visit. She was fired from her job; her life, as she knew it, was destroyed. (To hear the story, watch Jon Ronson’s TED Talk, “How one tweet can ruin your life.”)

Another example is what happened to Nancy Rommelmann, a journalist, author and self-described New York liberal. She started a podcast in December 2018 based on the hashtag #MeNeither. In it she took the #MeToo movement to task for a few things, but primarily for the idea that anyone making the claim of sexual harassment should be automatically believed. She suggested that each claim should be judged as people would any other—on its own merits. The response in the media eventually affected her husband’s businesses. Employees quit, suppliers cut and ran and people on Twitter even suggested that her husband should file for divorce.

The extreme irony of these situations is that people were willing to be intolerant in the name of tolerance, to be hateful in the name of eradicating hate. In wanting to condemn communications they felt were racist and sexist, they didn’t take the time to open up a civil dialogue or discover the truth about a fellow human being.

And sadly, horrifically, in both instances, instead of focusing on denouncing someone’s ideas, there was a lot of name-calling of the very worst kind. That sounds like bullying to me.

Why write things on the Internet about a person that we would never say directly to someone’s face because it would be hurtful? Since when did public shaming become okay? I remember a time when people actually condemned that as hate. Judging someone on social media has become the 21st-century equivalent of throwing someone in the stocks, a practice modern people would typically see as cruel and unusual punishment.

As Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, said in his TED Talk, “You can lead a good, ethical life, but some bad phraseology in a tweet can overwhelm it all . . . Maybe there’s two types of people in the world: those people who favor humans over ideology and those people who favor ideology over humans . . . right now the ideologues are winning.”

Ellen DeGeneres, who received some flak via social media for sitting next to George and Laura Bush at a ballgame on Sunday, responded with these words: “I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s okay. When I say ‘be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone.”

My caution to all of us is this: Be careful before you post or tweet something. Make sure it’s true (I have been guilty of posting something that turned out to be untrue and will, to the best of my ability, not do so again). Above all, make sure you’re practicing civility. Practice thoughtfulness and kindness. Take a few moments to at least attempt to see things from someone else’s point of view. Don’t jump on a bandwagon just because something is trending. Don’t give in to self-righteousness or misplaced outrage.

Because the next time an Internet mob comes after someone, that someone just might be you.