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Fear and Loathing Online PDF Print E-mail
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
May 2017

What people post can’t be who they really are

“TPix_JohnIse_5-17he only one who apparently is racist and divisive in this entire election is John Ise with his not so politically correct commentary on not a bad egg.”

Oooff! That was the response from a commentator to a Facebook post I titled “Not a Bad Egg,” in which I praised all six Miami Shores Village Council candidates as “decent, civic-minded neighbors who have been actively involved in Village affairs for some time and deserve kudos and respect for stepping forward into what can be the tumultuous waters of Miami Shores Village politics.”

So what was my alleged offense? I wrote that candidate Eddie Lewis was “the sole African-American in the Council race (in a village that is about 24 percent black), active in the Optimists Club, and scores points for being a military veteran.”

Now, of course, no fair-minded person reading the post would conclude that I was pushing racist buttons. But I was rattled, and so I sputtered a defensive reply, writing that diversity, in all its components, and its representation in Village government, is vitally important.

But the damage was done, and as the saying in sales goes: “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

Looking through Facebook and NextDoor during last month’s Village election season, I found stories and comments that proclaimed our Village manager…or former Mayor Alice Burch…or Councilman Steve Zelkowitz…or Councilman (now mayor-elect) Mac Glinn…or Police Chief Lystad…or any given candidate for council was “corrupt,” “unethical,” “incompetent,” or whatever insult the commentator chose to hurl.

Anonymous letters disparaging council candidates with dishonest and unproven accusations were posted and then shared online. Two Facebook commentators, discussing one of the candidates, threw figurative hand grenades back and forth, listing their past police infractions and legal troubles. We hit rock bottom when some schmuck on Facebook falsely posed as Village Manager Tom Benton and lambasted one of the candidates for legally defending a client involved in a terrible crime.

Ugh. Read these posts, and you’ll want to head immediately for the shower to clean off the stench.

But welcome to the bleak new world of online political discourse, where diatribes and caustic accusations are posted casually and frequently. Those on the opposite side of the political fence are labeled liars, crooks, unethical, and, yes, racist.

I wonder if the point of so many commentators is not to sway opinion, but rather just to pummel opposing views into submission as in that old New Yorker cartoon, where one dog says to another: “It’s not enough that we succeed. Cats must also fail.”

One need look no further than Donald Trump, who rose to the presidency powered by a stream of tweeted insults tagging opponents with epithets like “Crooked Hillary,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco,” “Low-Energy Jeb,” “Crazy Bernie.” Rolling Stone magazine last March tabulated the Twitter adjectives Trump employed regularly and came up with “lightweight, dishonest, dumb or dummy, bad! sad! dope or dopey, weak, liar, loser, the worst, boring, incompetent, biased, a disaster, a clown, a disgrace, dying, overrated, stupid, fraud, and not nice.”

Not exactly the Gettysburg Address.

Predictably, this toxicity has infected the bloodstream of Trump’s opponents, with many left-leaning folks posting daily diatribes against whatever Trump is doing. Trump supporters are stereotyped as dumb, racist hicks, truly deplorable, as Hillary Clinton regrettably put it. Online and real-life friendships have ended, even within families, as a result of these hyper-charged political disagreements. We’ve retreated into our ideological tribes.

Incivility, be it in our political discourse, social media, on cable TV shout-fests, driving on I-95, or even the weekly trip to Publix, seems to be on the rise. A study by KRC Research titled “Civility in America” finds that most Americans see a direct link between incivility in society and violent behavior (93 percent), online bullying/cyberbullying (90 percent), discrimination/unfair treatment (88 percent), humiliation and harassment (92 percent), and intimidation and threats (93 percent).

This hurts us in ways that we might not fully grasp. Jim Taylor, a psychologist at University of San Francisco, wrote the following in the Huffington Post:

“Civility is about something far more important than how people comport themselves with others. Rather, civility is an expression of a fundamental understanding and respect for the laws, rules, and norms (written and implicit) that guide its citizens in understanding what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. For a society to function, people must be willing to accept those strictures. Though still in the distance, the loss of civility is a step toward anarchy, where anything goes; you can say or do anything, regardless of the consequences.”

Returning to our little village, most of the people involved in village affairs, from engaged citizens, staff, or elected officials, seem driven by a sense of public service for the betterment of the community. But good people are now dissuaded from public service in the face of being pummeled online as unethical, incompetent, fill in the blank.

Most will simply say, “Why bother? Life’s too short.” For true cases of corruption and illegality, the county’s Commission on Ethics and Public Trust or the State Attorney’s Office public corruption unit are just a phone call away at 786-314-9560 and 305-547-0664, respectively. File a complaint, and they’ll investigate.

We can all disagree agreeably. I have no problem with a post saying, “John, I disagree with you.” But I would have a problem with “John, I disagree with you…and you suck!”

Hearts and minds can be changed, but only with open hearts and open minds. One approach gets me to consider perspectives; the other just gets me mad.

Maybe we need to step back from Trump and Twitter, and go back to George Washington, who wrote a whole book on the importance of civility, 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation. “Speak not evil of the absent,” he wrote, “for it is unjust.”

Thomas Jefferson, in an 1814 letter to Walter Jones, extolled Washington’s character, writing that “on the whole, his character was, in its mass, perfect, in nothing bad, in few points indifferent; and it may truly be said that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great.”

For someone as great as Washington to value good behavior and civility, maybe, just maybe, there is a lesson for us today.

A good rule of thumb: if you’re not willing to say something to someone’s face, then don’t write it in an Internet post. And here’s one last fun fact: 88 percent of us do believe people are less polite on social media than in person.

Remember, we’re all neighbors, so let’s try to be good to one another. Yes, love thy neighbor, even online.

 

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