What is becoming of us? Some Americans can no longer participate in a debate without becoming red hot irate and, in some cases, profane.
Popular Science, the 141-year-old source of science and technology news, announced recently that it will no longer accept online comments on news articles. The reason? An increasing number of uncivil comments.
Fractious and insulting comments, Popular Science editors wrote, can be bad for science. Uncivil comments not only polarize readers, the editors said, but they often changed a participant’s interpretation of the news story itself. The magazine’s announcement included research data that supports their position.
As a former newspaper publisher, I understand Popular Science’s decision but I regret it. Increasingly, Americans can no longer engage in a debate without becoming bitter, cruel and, in some cases, profane.
My first boss was a Roosevelt Democrat. I grew up in an extremely conservative community and family. One of the joys of working for this man was discussing politics with him. He was well read and articulate; I learned a great deal from him. When we disagreed he treated me with respect as I did him. On some issues, I came to agree with him.
Over the years I have learned a lot from people with whom I disagree. It’s getting to be more difficult to do that.
One of the reasons, I think, is the anonymity provided by the Internet. In some cases online discussion boards do not require a name and address ̶ only an online nickname. Nasty things are more easily written when the contributor can remain anonymous.
I recall a farmer who read our newspaper in southwest Iowa. On several occasions he asked if he could write a letter to the editor without signing it. I told him he could but we wouldn’t publish it.
“But there are so many things I would like say if I didn’t have to have my name associated with it,” he protested.
I explained that an opinion is worth nothing if you don’t believe it strongly enough to sign your name to it. My farmer friend would grin and say, “But I sure could write a good letter if I didn’t have to sign it.”
As a newspaper publisher I ignored complaint letters that were not signed. If the writer didn’t have the courage to sign the complaint I didn’t have time to read it.
Phone calls were the same way. If a caller did not identify him or herself, I asked with whom I was speaking. If they refused to identify themselves I refused to continue the conversation. “You know who I am,” I explained. “If I can’t know who you are we having nothing to talk about.”
If I receive a recorded telephone message in which the caller has not identified him or herself, I ignored it. Anonymity makes minnows think they are sharks.
A few years ago I wrote a column about the importance of leaving a tip of at least 15 percent to restaurant waiters and waitresses. A reader sent me an e-mail stating that he gave God 10 percent and he didn’t think restaurant wait staff deserved more than God.
I wrote back that while I disagreed with him I was proud of him for giving 10 percent to God. Over the months and years that followed he frequently sent me an e-mail after reading my column, sometimes agreeing but just as often disagreeing. He was a delightful elderly gentleman and I looked forward to his e-mails. He expressed his opinions firmly but always respectfully. I was saddened to learn earlier this year that he passed away.
I regret that as a society we have become so coarse and so insecure we cannot discuss and debate matters without becoming uncivil. Turn of the 20th century author Henry James wrote, “Three things in human life are important: The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind and the third is to be kind.”