Some see social media as a place for real conversation and debate. But if you’re looking for genuine civil discourse, you’ll be disappointed.
I think many of us would say, if anyone asked us, that civil discourse is an important component of a healthy society. We need to be able to have healthy debate. We need to hear other people’s ideas. Indeed, when I started this blog 19 years ago, I wanted to create a place where a discussion of topics might happen.
Poet Eric Overby said this of civil discourse in his book, Legacy:
In order to think through things clearly, we need other opinions and viewpoints in order to navigate into the nuance. We need civil debate to present opposing viewpoints and point out our blind spots. We need the ability to speak freely and civilly to one another.Eric Overby, Legacy
The ability to speak freely and civilly requires a few things, though. It requires the confidence to speak your mind. But it also requires the willingness to listen to those other ideas and actually consider them. Then it requires the patience to discuss those ideas in a reasonable manner.
You can argue all day that social media gives people a more level playing field when it comes to expressing opinions. To a point, I would agree.
But the worst thing about social media is it doesn’t require any kind of “thinking period” before people get the chance to have their say. That leads to a lot of pouncing, name-calling and straw man arguments that seem to come from people who are more interested in degrading others to make themselves look superior.
I’ll give you an example
Earlier this week, I wrote about a college newspaper’s front page on the shooting at the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. The paper chose to create a front page featuring actual text messages sent between students and parents during the lockdown. Some of those messages contained profanity, specifically the F-bomb.
The newspaper ran the messages without editing. Television stations and networks, naturally, blurred out those words. I don’t know of a commercial paper that ran photos of it as is, though some may have.
My take was that the profanity seemed gratuitous to me. While I think the paper come up with a creative way to capture the emotion, I just didn’t find the graphic profanity quite as necessary as the paper’s editors seemed to.
I posted my take on a few social media channels.
The response took an interesting form. Commenters lamented someone who was “more concerned” with profanity in a newspaper than senseless gun violence. Another suggested that anyone asking if the front page went a little too far “hasn’t had a family slaughtered by an AR-15” in a school, grocery store, park or other public place.
I knew I was posting what might be an “unpopular” opinion. I said so. But what I didn’t say, and what I don’t think I even implied, was that I was more concerned with a front page than another act of senseless gun violence.
While it’s true that I’ve been fortunate not to have a family member killed by an AR-15-wielding gunman — I believe people kill people with guns — I don’t think that’s a requirement to have an opinion here. The person who made that suggestion, as far as I can tell, hasn’t, either. (Maybe he or she has, but that piece of information didn’t appear in the comment.)
Changing the argument, killing the point
Apparently, in this age of social media, it’s too much effort to actually stop and consider someone’s point. It’s far easier to twist a point to something so obvious that everyone would be willing to agree with you.
“The act of violence is far worse than a little profanity on the front page.”
Well, of course, it is! Who would rank profanity as worse than killing someone?
I don’t know what kind of twisted mind would come up with that. That certainly wasn’t the point I made. It wasn’t the point I hoped to raise a discussion about. Reading so ridiculous a response might actually cost you an I.Q. point or two.
“Anyone asking this question hasn’t had a family slaughtered by an AR-15 in [a] school, grocery store, park, [etc.].”
And? Why do I need to have gone through the brutal murder of a family member to have an opinion on front page coverage of a news story? I hope that person hasn’t gone through such a tragedy. I wish the family of the victim killed at UNC wasn’t going through a tragedy.
But I’ve worked in journalism for more than three decades. So I think I’m at least qualified to have an opinion on how journalism works.
The point of the piece wasn’t about gun violence. I wasn’t arguing for or against guns. The point was about how a college paper chose to cover a story. I’d have offered the same perspective if the story was about flooding.
Would someone argue that I was more concerned with profanity than someone losing their home?
In this day and age, I’m sad to say someone probably would.
That’s not civil discourse. That’s not raising an actual discussion. If anything, that’s just wasting your time and that of your reader.