Among the many evils of social media, technologies that do far more harm than good, the attack on civility is among the most pervasive. Simply put, it’s much too easy to post ill-considered opinions and false information, and easier still for people to join in.
That’s certainly the case with Twitter-in-chief Donald Trump and his followers. Pretty much everything Trump says on social media is a lie, and is flagged as such. His bluster spills over onto his followers, with profound implications that go beyond incivility to the prospect for violence.
That’s a real problem, as Kali Holloway notes in a piece last week for The Nation.
“The potential for violence here isn’t just theoretical. As ballots were being tabulated in Arizona, Nevada, and Pennsylvania, armed Trump supporters swarmed vote-counting centers, and gun-toting election denialists have gathered at Georgia’s Capitol as the recount proceeds,” she wrote.
“An Alabama police captain announced via social media that Biden voters deserve ‘a bullet in their skull for treason,’ and an Arkansas police chief urged his followers to ‘throw water on [Biden voters] at restaurants. Push them off sidewalks. Never let them forget they are traitors and have no right to live in this Republic after what they have done.’ (Both officers resigned after outcries.) Claiming the election had been ‘fraudulently stolen from us,’ a Trump supporter in the New York City borough of Staten Island advocated online for the ‘extermination of anyone that claims to be a democrat.’
“This is the fire Republicans have fanned for years, and it will continue to ravage the political and cultural landscape as it burns. Once out of office, Trump will use every bullhorn at his disposal to spread misinformation and foment violence. His tweets will push debunked election fraud lies, and he’ll portray himself as a martyr slain by a corrupt and unfair electoral system.”
In this regard, the failure to call out Trump and his supporters are akin to issues with Muslim extremists. When people carry out terrorist acts in the name of Islam, we demand that Muslim groups denounce such activities. Shouldn’t the same be true of the Republican party, which tacitly endorses violence, anti-democratic stances and authoritarianism by failing to speak out against Trump and those who support him?
Trump is the latest and worst example of a trend. We are, it seems, increasingly less civil to one another.
That’s not surprising given the changes in our society. As cities grow, they become less personal. There are more “others:” people we don’t know, people who aren’t like us – race, class, culture. That makes us more defensive, and more likely to spend less time in public situations. When we’re out, we try our best to pretend the others don’t exist. The larger the city and the more crowded the area, the more likely we are to assert our personal space.
Add to that a certain paranoia about crime and you’ve got the recipe for a more detached society. Are we getting meaner, lowering the baseline for civility? Or are growth and shifting demographics making us that way, simply our reaction to change?
Those who live in the smaller communities of Woolwich and Wellesley townships will tell you they’re friendlier places – people are nice. That feeling is less prevalent in the region’s cities, and mostly absent when you visit larger centers such as Toronto.
That anecdotal evidence points to the effects population has on civility, a reality borne out by research. The greater the feeling of anonymity, the more rude we are likely to become: you flip the bird to strangers, not to neighbours you’ve had over to your house for a cup of coffee.
Even as we become more crowded, we’re living more isolated lives. People used to socialize and communicate more often with people in their communities. We were more involved. Today, however, we’re more likely to spend time alone in front of the television or, increasingly, in front of our devices, where online “social” networking has displaced real human interactions. Without strong social connections, we’re more likely to be rude to each other.
It doesn’t help that films and television present cruelty and meanness as entertainment. Kindness is depicted as a weakness, with aloofness seen as a strong trait. Even comedies show kids and adults tossing around wisecracks and insults with abandon.
We tend to be nicer to those people we know. If we are to make the social-media age more civil, we have to extend goodwill to strangers. Let’s face it, if you see a friend trying to pull his car out of a parking lot and into traffic, you’re going to stop and wave him ahead. That’s much less likely with someone you don’t know, especially if you don’t like the look of him.
There are social norms about interacting with unknown people in public, unwritten rules that see us do our best to ignore the fact we’re surrounded by strangers when we’re away from the privacy and comfort of our homes.
You can easily test that theory by attempting to strike up a conversation with strangers out in public. Most often, they’ll be taken aback, and wary of your intentions. Even in the case of a shared experience – waiting in the same line, for instance – the personal boundaries are intact.
Most of us are very particular about our personal space. It’s interesting to watch how people attempt to distance themselves as much as possible from others in places such as waiting rooms or on public transit. We try to keep the maximum distance from everyone else – it’s a well-studied mathematical certainty, even before COVID-19 made it a prudent requirement. Want to put that to the test? Try striking up a conversation in an elevator, for instance. Accepted behaviour dictates you pretend there’s no one else there. Most people adhere to the rules. Curiously, our social nature takes over the minute there’s a shared experience: if the elevator stops unexpectedly, we’ll immediately begin talking to the people we were studiously ignoring just moments before.
Still, there’s no harm in being at least a little more polite. Saying “thank you” is just good manners – your mother should have taught you that – as is holding open a door, or at least making sure it’s not slamming into the next person’s face. Metaphorically, the same should apply to our digital interactions.
That kind of thing should go without saying. That it doesn’t tells us we’ve got a long way to go.