How Shall We Then Post:
Conviction & Civility
In a recent address to our university’s faculty and staff, President David Dockery discussed the importance of “conviction and civility” in our discourse. As a faith-based institution we share certain convictions, but even within that commonality there is still a great deal of diversity, especially as we look at the mixture of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents that comprise our 900 full and part time faculty and staff across three campuses in three different cities.
The focus of Dockery’s remarks was the importance of the word “and” in “conviction and civility.” Regardless of your ideology I believe his words ring true.
If we have conviction but not civility, our words can do more harm than good; if we have civility without conviction, we become untethered and our words have little impact. As I considered this my thoughts turned to the role social media now plays in our local, national, and international discourse, particularly in this election year. What strikes me about my own social media experiences is the very different ways I see this playing out on various social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook.
Twitter: Civility with Strangers
I realize that Twitter hosts its share of incivility, but my Twitter feed has provided more thought-provoking perspectives and interesting links than vitriol in the cultural clashes of the past six months. I follow 481 individuals/entities that run the gamut of religious, social and ideological convictions. While in most cases reading a tweet or link posted by someone with a differing view does not change my mind, it often deepens my understanding of their point of view, enabling me to better engage with understanding, respect and civility.
Through Twitter I have relationships with individuals that I would otherwise likely never have the opportunity to meet. The collegial and human nature of these relationships provide a very different context than the generic, faceless “them” when faced with ideological differences. Why this has been my Twitter experience is a question that merits its own post. Perhaps it is because of the non-threaded, constantly moving nature of the Twitter stream. Perhaps it is because we edit ourselves more thoughtfully when we are trying to fit a thought into 140 characters. Perhaps I have just chosen to follow people who take a more civil approach to discourse. Or perhaps most intriguingly, unfollowing someone on Twitter (especially that I don’t know) is more socially acceptable than “unfriending” someone on Facebook.
Facebook: Incivility with Friends
I have read a number of variations, but this ecard is a good representation of a common sentiment. “Twitter makes me like people I’ve never even met. Facebook makes me want to throat-punch some of the ones I have.” While extreme, I get it. As much as I enjoy Facebook as a way to connect with faraway friends, current and former students, colleagues and family, I almost daily cringe at either a (usually issues-based) post or a merciless comment on someone else’s post. Granted the definition of “friend” in the context of Facebook is a shadow of its historical meaning (a post in and of itself), so more often than not I am reading posts from an acquaintance or “person I met once at a conference” or a Facebook friend’s friend, but not always. Election season seems to have only heightened this phenomenon and neither the political right or left seems immune. Perhaps even more ironic are the calls for civility couched in such condescending or combative language the opposite is engendered.
How Shall We Then Post?
While we like to blame the 24 hour news cycle, the political right, the political left, social media or the decline of western civilization for the incivility of our discourse, I believe the solution, especially on social media, is for each of us as individuals to embrace the idea that we can be civil without sacrificing our convictions. On a practical level, how might we do this? I believe as we discuss cultural and political issues about which we are passionate, there are three tests we can use to post with conviction and civility.
The Educate vs Infuriate Test: One of the best ways to judge language and tone is by reading our own post but inserting the opposite point of view. Are our comments or the comments of the article/blog/political cartoon we are linking to providing perspective to someone who agrees/disagrees? Or as you read it from the opposite point of view is it so infuriating you quit reading? By removing our own ideology from the equation, we are better able to focus on the delivery and determine if our thoughts are expressed in a way that someone who disagrees might actually read and be motivated to discourse instead of discord.
The Tone Test: Like email, instant messages, and texts, our social media posts don’t have the context of emotion and vocal inflection. Most of us have at some time sent what we thought was an innocuous message, only to receive a flaming reply making it very obvious the receiver had interpreted it quite differently. Often this is because when we read the text we are projecting our intended tone, and when the receiver doesn’t have that context the words alone can come across differently. Dr. Daniel Goleman, in his book Social Intelligence, suggests that there is an innate negativity attributed to neutral digital text, meaning that if the digital message content is neutral we actually assume a negative tone. Regardless, it is important that we intentionally find a way to clearly communicate our tone as well as our content. We can do this through language and word choice, as well as through a thoughtfully placed emoticon. I must admit, I hate cutesy heart emoticons as much as the next person, but a well placed smiley face can make all the difference in how a post is interpreted.
The Face to Face Test: There are numerous studies on the way sharing online affects what we are willing to share and with whom. Described by psychologist Dr. John Suler as the “online disinhibition effect,” people are less inhibited typing and sending for a variety of reasons, including feelings of invisibility and online asynchronicity. This can have positive and negative consequences. The question we should ask ourselves before we post is simple. Would we say this to every person in our social media realm if they were standing right in front of us? If not, we should regroup or perhaps refrain from comment.
It is somewhat easy to be critical of online incivility and offer suggestions to improve it. It is equally easy to cynically dismiss the idea that civility is even possible. What is difficult is to actually take the time to be the difference. To not withdraw, but to share our convictions with those who do and do not agree with us, but do it with a civility that changes the conversation.