From The Editor | What to Do About Sick Civil Discourse Syndrome

By | May 23, 2019
Summer 2019 Double Issue

“I did everything I could in my life to be immune to hatred, because hatred is a cancer.”—Elie Wiesel

I first noticed what I’ve termed Sick Civil Discourse Syndrome (SCDS) on a digital platform around 2007, when my Moment inbox was flooded by hundreds of hateful emails insisting that then-presidential candidate Barack “Hussein” Obama was a Muslim and/or born in Kenya. Some of the emails appeared to be part of coordinated campaigns.

A little more than ten years later, healthy civil discourse is withering, in part because of the combustive mix of politics and digital communication. The ease with which otherwise seemingly civilized humans act out in the isolation of the internet is astonishing: People on the right and left throw out feral comments and misinformation—willfully or otherwise—use dismissive and judgmental language, and mistake snark and sarcasm for wit and wisdom. Worse, SCDS has leapt beyond email and social media to infect written and spoken discourse, both private and public, creating a pandemic that needs to be addressed.

It is easy to throw up our hands, blame someone else (Mark Zuckerberg), something else (algorithms, huge corporations, the government, over-zealous free-market proponents) or the unfortunate confluence of human nature and technology, for this sad state of affairs. There is truth in all of this—we may need, for example, to break up tech companies and/or rethink how they function. But even so, we can begin by taking action ourselves to tame the Wild West of the web. As tech writer Clive Thompson says in his book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, the engineers and designers who invented the web were introverts who didn’t foresee the dark ways their platforms would be used. I don’t know whether they could have, but now we know, and there’s no time to waste. 

We can change our behavior to protect the health of virtual civil discourse. There is plenty of precedent in the non-virtual world: Debate—developed in ancient Greece and India, then in Enlightenment England—gives form to argument; Robert’s Rules of Order provides structure for political discussion; journalistic norms help frame the conversation about current affairs; and standards for all kinds of behavior—from love to warfare—lead to a veneer of civility and, sometimes, to societal transformation. These structures and standards don’t always work, but together they have given civilization the space to grow. Jewish thought, too, builds civil disagreement into the system: The Talmudic model, for example, allows rabbis to comment on and argue about religious ideas. Even on the web, some users have already succeeded in carving out small spaces such as moderated groups and forums where civility reigns.

It’s time to launch a campaign to take control of how we personally interact with virtual technology, particularly when it comes to politics. One component is to follow a set of guidelines, which many of us know but don’t adhere to. I offer some here:

  • Never use language that is impolite or pejorative, such as “you are/he is an idiot” or “you are/she is a witch.” Don’t fool yourself into thinking any strain of meanness is constructive. There is no such thing as tough love on the internet.
  •  Don’t engage reactively. Take yourself offline before you respond or, even better, sleep on it. If you do react, “unlike,” unshare, edit or apologize—it’s better than nothing. And don’t say everything you think. Social media stimulates us to say too much, too often.
  • Select sources that you know you can rely on. Never share content without being sure of its accuracy, and set the bar for accuracy very high. Listen to the questions in your own mind. Fact-check assertions and find primary sources. If you can’t, consult a reputable fact-checking site.
  • Back up political comments with a source, or better yet, three. That way people can judge your sources for themselves. Make sure you read the articles and information you post carefully.
  • Pay attention to whom you connect with. Judge character just as you would in person. If you are concerned about someone’s social media behavior, unfriend or disconnect. You don’t need to say why. And don’t respond to calls to action or campaigns unless you are sure who generated them.
  • Choose and maintain social media relationships beyond your bubble to learn how others view the world. Observe and evaluate their sources as you do your own.
  • Remember that algorithms curate what you see to show you what you already like. To counter this, unplug from social media and seek out independent media sources.
  • Be aware that manipulators of all kinds lurk on the internet. Learn to spot them and stay away, and never link to or download anything you are not sure of. Make passwords tough to crack.

Rules are but one strategy. Currently, extreme views are rewarded by more clicks. Instead, we need to recognize thoughtfulness, nuance and true creativity. Meanwhile, we should all be thinking about ways to create a positive incentive system that can help improve web behavior on a larger scale.

None of these strategies will stop bad or illegal actors from finding new ways to manipulate us. But as in the old game of telephone, we don’t have to pass it on, and our refusal to play along will decrease their leverage. With greater awareness, we will become better at recognizing negative influencers, grow more aware of our own weaknesses and help stop SCDS from spreading. And we will slow the advance of misinformation—and hate—that has led to so much polarization and deadly violence.

2 thoughts on “From The Editor | What to Do About Sick Civil Discourse Syndrome

  1. David says:

    Good thoughts all around; thanks!

  2. Ronald W. Pies MD says:

    I appreciate Ms. Epstein’s call for online/internet civility, and would like to suggest another means of addressing “SCDS”; namely, the elimination of anonymous postings, text messages, etc. In my experience as a writer and blogger, over 90% of the incivility and abuse is associated with anonymous or pseudonymous postings. With no personal identification attached to an abusive or threatening message, there is no disincentive to the person posting. We need to require a confirmed, full-name identification for nearly all online communications.

    I stipulate “nearly all”, because there are very rare instances in which maintaining anonymity protects the safety and well-being of the person posting; for example, when someone risks being stalked or physically abused if he or she is identified on line. In such cases, a moderator could be contacted to grant an “exemption” to the person who wishes to post. There may be other circumstances, such as the risk of losing one’s job, that might justify an anonymous posting–but these cases are very rare. The vast majority of abusive/uncivil communications on line occur for a very simple reason: people can get away with it.

    Do I think my proposal has a realistic chance of being enacted? Hardly! It would require a massive reorientation of our entire online culture. Yet there are a few examples of mandatory, non-anonymous communications still alive in our culture; e.g., the letters to the editor in the New York Times.

    Oh, yes: there is also a teaching from the Talmud that can help reduce online incivility: “Do not be easily angered.” (Avot 2:10).

    Ronald W. Pies, MD
    Author, Becoming a Mensch

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