As if we needed any more evidence as to why the Civic Commons wants its users to agree to be "civil" before engaging online, a Columbus Dispatch editorial declared last week, in regard to a social media incident involving the state Board of Education president, "This H-bomb is a dud: Invoking Hitler is unlikely to be a winning political strategy" and a highly regarded expert on online politicking likewise wrote of the same incident, "...dropping the H-bomb pretty much destroys the intellectual credibility of the dropper...". That H-bomb, and many other words and utterances of name-calling, are the nuclear bomb equivalents of destroying any chance for meaningful, useful dialogue. And that is the opposite of what the Civic Commons seeks to promote.
Of course, linguistic laziness in unpacking and examining controversial topics isn't committed solely by people in the poltiical arena. Last year, a food industry CEO apologized for comparing President Obama's health care reform efforts to fascism because, as he admitted, the word "fascism" has "...so much baggage attached to it." He went on to say that he thinks we need a new word to describe what he sees as the country, "...no longer hav[ing] free-enterprise capitalism in health care...[because t]he government is directing it.
Yet is it really only a matter of finding a new word to describe circumstances as any one of us might view them? Isn't it a matter of figuring out how to use language to express what we want to in a way that can be heard by those with whom we're engaging? Dropping high impact words almost always has exactly the impact the dropping of a bomb has: destruction. But, as you can see from our principles, we're in the habit of building conversations and connections that have the power to become informed, productive collective civic action.
Inevitably, when these lobs get tossed around and then critiqued for being tossed around, someone usually chimes in to say, "Ah! But you are trying to restrict the lobber's First Amerndment by critiquing the use of those bombs!" And then we're off to the races: the bomber has succeeded, intentionally or unintentionally, to neutralize conversation and everyone becomes focused on the shiny exploding object, which is never the issue that was being tackled before the bomb got thrown.
That's why there's this in the Civic Commons principles, "We tackle the issues, not each other. We're as interested in each other's opinions as we are in our own. And we act like it."
"Acting like it" means, if you're looking to disagree with someone's ideas, then you use bombs of argumentation and logic that dismantle and defuse their arguments and logic, not analogies or name-calling that demeans the person proposing those ideas.
Yes, the First Amendment protects name-calling and more. There's really only nine areas of speech that are not protected. But just because it's legal, does that mean it's acceptable to do it? How many behaviors can you think of that might be legal but are not ethical, or moral, or something you want to promote? Drawing attention to how protected speech dismantles or distracts from a desired but difficult conversation is just as protected as the incendiary words thrown into a conversation.
At the Civic Comons, we've built into our structure and seek to foster a culture that encourages deep dives into touch topics. Fracking. School reform. Sin-tax and sports arenas and skywalks. And we offer the option for alerting us when the self-correcting nature of a comment thread needs support in keeping debates civil.
But after nearly two years at this, not only do we see that it can be done, we see how many people and the diversity of people who are attracted to the provision of such a place for discussion. I know I'm grateful for everyone who supports these principles and I know I've learned from them myself. Speak freely and carry a good thesaurus - so you don't have to drop a rhetoric bomb but instead can roll out a real argument.
Copyright © 2013 Jill Miller Zimon; available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License.
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