Dinner and a Tweet

August 18, 2011

"Save the neck for me Clark!"

I’ve had a lot of readers ask that I continue to explore the issues of civility as it relates to technology. There seems to be a great deal of interest around the subject of civility and social networking, in particular. While I’ve covered cyber-bullying and the enabling of incivility by the anonymity provided by the internet, I hadn’t thought about the mechanics  of incivility in the social networking space until just recently.

I think the reason that I haven’t dug into social networking as a source of uncivil behaviors is because, like you, I enjoy using technologies like Facebook and LinkedIn. I like re-connecting with friends and colleagues that I haven’t seen for months, years or even decades. I enjoy it when I receive a request to connect to someone that I first met when I was 6 years old but haven’t seen since graduation day from high school. It hasn’t been until the last year or so that I’ve been forced to acknowledge the dark side to social networking; a messy underbelly that most of us react to by “de-friending” those in our circle of connections and acquaintances. And I’ve finally come to grips with what fuels that uglier side of reconnecting via the internet. It comes down to following a simple guideline your grandmother probably taught you.

Before I dive into that particular re-discovery, I think it is worthwhile to visit a component of this issue that I’ve written about before. It is really important that we accept and understand that social networking is not the same as having a relationship with someone. Connecting with someone on Facebook is not the same thing as a healthy and helpful friendship. It isn’t the distance or the digital nature of social networking that makes this so – people who are truly friends can certainly agree that social networking tools can be a useful communication channel. The difference is, true friends know that social networking isn’t the ONLY communication channel. In fact, true friends will certainly know that social networking is, at best, a sub-optimal communication channel.

The problem with social networking today is that we all fall into the trap of thinking that the short updates provided by a “friend” that we haven’t been in the same room with for 3, 7 or 20 years is a complete picture of everything that that person is, was and will be. I’ve said before that familiarity breeds contempt. In the case of social networking, familiarity often breeds an attitude of entitlement.

Because I have watched you post updates, comments and photos for the past year – I feel entitled to share my observations, opinions and even my beliefs in the hopes of  “helping” you. Sometimes we invite this often unwanted feedback upon ourselves, by sharing too much information on our social networking pages. “Drunk dialing” has been replaced with “drunk updating” – and I can tell you for certain that receiving an update from an inebriated friend, co-worker or family member is never anything but an awkward experience. Well, maybe not always awkward – there are those moments in time when “drunk updating” can be pretty funny, but most times we’re laughing at you and not with you.

What I find most interesting about behaviors on Facebook and through other social networking outlets is the complete lack of regard for a simple rule that I’m certain you’ve heard, or may have even been taught to you by your parents or grandparents.

Quick, what are the three subjects you never discuss at the dinner table?

Sex – Religion – Politics

Think about the intimacy of a dinner with friends. A social occassion sharing dinner and conversation with people you haven’t seen for, let’s say 14 years. There you are enjoying the opportunity to reconnect, when your dinner partners launch into a lengthy monologue on why they think our current elected officials are awful. Or maybe you initiate a conversation about your ingrained hatred for a particular religious faith. Or even worse, you start up a discussion about your wild weekend in Cabo where you blacked out at least 4 times, lost your digital camera and you keep chasing down embarassing pictures posted on the internet of your “private moments”.

I’m guessing that in any of these instances, you’d pretty much determine that having dinner together again would not be happening. Ever.

When it comes to civil behaviors in America, particularly in reference to the use of technology, I feel compelled to emphasize a very important reminder. Freedom of speech is NOT the same as freedom from responsibility for what you say. Disparaging someone’s faith, political beliefs, sexual orientation, gender identity, financial situation, social standing, socio-economic theories, race, cultural background – are making these types of  inflammatory comments the kind of things that “friends” do to each other? If the entire premise of Facebook is to “friend” someone – why on earth would you use that networking channel to treat a “friend” so poorly? We tend to only register horror and concern about the power of social networking when the abuse of the technology by a bully or a group of bullies results in the suicidal death of a teenager. But the simple day-to-day interactions of appending comments to our friend’s updates in the social networking space have power over our lives and our self-image. An acidic comment by a “friend” to an update we’ve made or a picture we’ve posted can, and frequently does, ruin our entire day. Words have power. And those words stay on your Facebook page – they don’t just disappear on the wind (well, unless you delete them – but if you have to delete a comment it pretty much proves the point that your “friend’s” comment struck a nerve).

When participating in the social networking community, we would be wise to heed the words of author Chuck Palahniuk. “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can hurt like hell.”

Or maybe my mother had the best advice on the subject of how to treat people in a civil manner. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

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Mr. Wilson’s War – On Class

September 11, 2009

CaningSumnerJoe Wilson is not uncivil. There, I said it. While this statement is out of step with the barrage of coverage on civility in the past 24 hours, it actually offers a clarification of that most tricky of arenas for the practice of civil behavior; our government.

Civility, in its most basic form, is a set of boundaries and constraints that an individual or community agrees to in order to function as a unified whole. These boundaries and constraints are enforced through culture, tradition, protocol and laws, both written and unwritten. Now, the Congress is a Pantheon of protocol. The written rules of procedure are staggeringly complex and decidedly arcane. These boundaries exist for a very specific purpose. Our founding fathers and subsequent generations intuitively understood that a group of Type A personalities whose vocation was elected office would never get anything accomplished (or decidedly less than they do now) if there weren’t some type of controls in place.

While it may seem strange to many Americans, Mr. Wilson’s outburst was completely within the established and agreed upon border lines of the protocols of the Senate and House.

Was it boorish? Yes.
Rude? Yes.
Low class? Yes.
Disrespectful? Yes.
Uncivil? No.

Mr. Wilson operated within constraints of his community. In fact, Mr. Wilson perfected the example of the behaviors expected of a US Congressman when he immediately wrote a letter of apology, called the President to apologize and will most likely receive some form of rebuke from his own party and the House as well.

By comparison, Vice-President Cheney’s behaviors have been blatantly uncivil. In Mr. Cheney’s case he, with malice and intention, broke a 230 year tradition of former Executive branch officials. Mr. Cheney has repeatedly denigrated President Obama’s administration, and has made a decision that 230 years of boundaries and constraints do not apply to him.

Mr. Wilson made an embarrassing error, but quickly sought forgiveness. President Obama didn’t hesitate a moment to personally accept that apology. Mr. Cheney’s actions are completely without repentance. He is breaking the long standing expectations of his office, with no apologies. Unrepentant bad behavior is an act of incivility.

I will tend to avoid writing about politics in the future, because it is simply too easy of a target. But, this event is certainly of the type that can’t be ignored when civility is a subject that I am passionate about. As I close today’s entry though, I think it is important to mention that the feigned and faked horror on both sides of the aisle is laughable. As I mentioned earlier, the US House and Senate are truly a special case in American culture. Even with the rules and protocols, the chambers of our Congress are not meant to be tread by the weak of heart and short of constitution. “You lie” pales in comparison to the large number of certifiably uncivil acts that have occurred within those chambers. To put things in perspective, consider the case of Congressman Brooks and Senator Sumner. On May 22, 1865 Mr. Preston Brooks entered the Senate chamber and walked up behind Senator Charles Sumner. Mr. Brooks proceeded to beat Mr. Sumner savagely with a cane. Senator Sumner took years to recover and many modern historians believe he suffered brain damage from the attack.

Sticks and stones will break those bones, but words will never hurt within the walls of our Capitol building. Words, even when inappropriately interjected during a Presidential speech, are still considered part of the civil discourse within that community.