Uncivil Discourse

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Before I begin this discussion, let me just say, I have been guilty of this very thing.  There have been times when I have gotten all in a huff over something somebody said, some opinion they’ve expressed, some thought they had, some issue they were processing and for some reason or another, the way they said it or the way they think about that issue that upset me so I acted ugly about it.

If you have followed this blog for any length of time (I’ve been at it since 2005) you all have borne witness to my ugly-acting ways. I wish I had set a better example. I so wish I could always be loving, always be kind, always be thoughtful, but the truth is, I’m not.

I hate that for you. And for the people who have to live with me. They get the worst of me. Poor things.

That said, I have grown increasingly dismayed and disturbed by the lack of civil conversation on the Internet, which, let’s be honest, has set a pretty low bar for civility. People are just downright hateful sometimes.

Good people.

Kind people.

Well-meaning people.

People who would give the shirt off their backs to  a shivering dog will say the most unimaginable things online. It’s like the keyboard is a black abyss we all fall into sometimes. It can bring out the worst in us.

Like I said, I am guilty of this, y’all know it, too, so don’t think I’m up on a high horse over this. I’m not. I’m just bringing it up for discussion.

I do that a lot. Bring up topics for discussion. You may have noticed that if you’ve spent any time here at all.

This blog is where I come to process things. This is where I came when my mother was dying. It is where I came to when my daughter struggled with infertility. It is where I came to in the wake of Sandy Hook and the death of James Foley. This is my hang-out. I come here to gather with you, because you help me understand myself better. You help me understand the world better. You help me understand God better. Having the freedom to process life here on these pages has been a gift in the middle of dark nights. I knew you all were sitting up with me.

I know you don’t always agree with me. I have made it clear, I hope, that that’s okay. I don’t always agree with myself, for that matter. I have always said that is my goal as a writer to make people think, not to tell them what to think.

For many years I had a policy on this blog that I would not delete people’s comments no matter how belittling, mean-spirited or unkind they were. I no longer hold to that view. I censor the comments that go on this blog now. I had to get to that point because I refuse to create an environment like so many places online that have become breeding grounds for hatred and ugliness.

I have taken the same approach online on my Facebook page. I may post something that I am pondering and open it up for discussion. When the discussion grows wearisome or tired, I delete it.

Discourse ought to be a way for us as a community to process and to grow. What happens too much online, however, is that when we disagree with others we resort to name-calling and finger-pointing.

I probably get more than my fair share of it because I am always writing about things in the news or hot-button topics. Probably if I spent my time putting up recipes and decorating tips for the modern woman, I would get a lot less flak from folks. But it is like that line from the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, when Shep Walker tells his gone-crazy wife: “I knew when I married you it was a crap shoot.”

That’s what you get if you hang around this blog long enough. A crap shoot. Some days, I’m at my best. Other days, I’m at my worst. But even on my bad days, I’d still like to keep the discourse civil. That’s how I imagine it when I’m writing. That I will say what I think, and you will tell me what you think, and we may agree or disagree but when it’s all said and done, we will have thought long and hard about something and come to a meeting of the minds along the way.

Thinking.

It matters to me.

If you spend any time here, I know it matters to you, too.

But let’s take this latest post on Harper Lee for example. I said what I thought. I posted it online. Shared it on Social Media and then entered into discourse with many people as a result.

Some of you disagreed with me. Some of you said you hadn’t thought of it that way before. Some of you said you needed to think about it some more. Some of you said it didn’t matter what anybody thought, you were buying the book and looking forward to reading it.

But then there were a few who hurled unkind accusations at me. Some said I was an idiot. Others said I was a gossip. Others said I wrote the post so that I could be viewed as the rescuer/defender of NHL.  Some said I was exploiting NHL to raise my own public profile. Some even went so far to block me on Facebook as a result of my post. (Keep in mind that these are people who asked to friend me in the first place, not people I sought out. It is rare that I ask to be anyone’s friend on Social Media any more. In a large part because of this phenom of uncivil discourse.) One even said I was a click-whore. (And yes, he was a man).

It troubles me deeply that in the online community the thing we do when we can’t be articulate and can’t reason together is we throw stones at one another. We literally stone each other with words. Like I said, I’m guilty. So I’m preaching to myself on this. But why do we do this?

Why do we talk ugly to one another simply because we disagree over something?

Why can’t we agree to disagree without name-calling or shoving people around?

What is it about this online community that makes us act like a bunch of bullies sometimes?

And yes, I really do want to know what you think. Just keep it civil.

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

14 Comments

Rod Richards

about 3 years ago

Karen, it seems to me that any discussion any more is all about I am right and you are wrong. Too few people are looking for common ground. I have heard it said that we don't listen to hear the other person, but we listen to reply and get ourselves heard. This starts at the very top of our society. If those who are our "leaders" can't even try to agree why should anyone else. I often just avoid some discussions because the level of incivility in the discussion.

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Those are great observations, Rod. It does seem, however, if we can find a way to get the conversation past the I'm right- You're wrong level that people really do long for a different kind of conversation. It's just those hurdles. Something about us needs to justify ourselves. I call it the Religion of Certainosity. People who would rather be right than redeemed.

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Matt Miles

about 3 years ago

Using the example of the Harper Lee book, I'd say it's because it never occurred to some of us and that makes us feel shitty about ourselves. Here I was, all excited about a sequel to a favorite classic, and then someone had to go and challenge me to think about it differently,that maybe it was a cause for lament and anger instead. I felt (and feel) conflicted about it, but I could see how it could make a person defensive. Feeling conflicted and navigating that tension is hard; directing that conflict outward is easier. I think it might be as simple as that.

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Matt: I never occurred to me that questioning the Harper Lee thing would make anyone feel shitty about their excitement over the book. I don't know if it's how I communicated it, perhaps some failure in the framing of my inquiry, or just the fact that likely due to my experiences as a reporter I am prone to ask the hard questions. I am sorry I made you feel bad about yourself, Matt. That wasn't my intent. I really do think there is reason to be believe that HL is being exploited. I always want to welcome the other points of view, however, because I certainly don't have the corner market on truth. Thank you for sharing your honest thoughts with me.

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Allison Owen

about 3 years ago

Karen, great post. Thank you. I don't know why this is true, but it seems to be a huge disconnect between what many will say online and what the same person would say to another's face. Is it because they're in the privacy of their own home/coffee shop and are typing privately and therefore think it's private. Who knows?

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Allison: I remember when I worked at the newspaper and editors would share some of the most outrageous Letters to the Editor. We would howl over some of them. But it seems to me that even the meanest of the mean where never as mean as the online stuff. I think Rebekah makes a great point below about signing one's name to everything. Perhaps the reason the LTE were not as ugly is because they did require a name and address, heh?

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Katdish

about 3 years ago

I don't always agree with you, but I have the utmost respect for you. The publication of Lee's second novel seemed suspicious to me from the get-go. And while I'd be lying if I said I wasn't immensely excited about the prospect of reading another work from her, it hurts my heart to think that it would be published without her being in a position to consent to it with absolute clarity and enthusiasm. I don't know what the truth is, but I do know that allowing a book to be published is akin to standing naked and exposed for all the world to see for many writers. And yet, they bravely choose to do it anyway. That's the million dollar question isn't it? Was it her choice? If it wasn't, no matter how compelling the work, I would feel dirty reading it.

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Katdish: I try never to take that respect from others lightly. I know that the byline matters. I understand that I am fallible (you should read how many letters I get from folks telling me to hire a copy editor for the blog). I make all kinds of errors here, both from a writing standpoint and from a human standpoint. I am more wrong than I ever am right. So to have anyone's respect, given the amount of mistakes I make, means a great deal and I try to honor that. RE: HL. Here's an article from a year ago that I think sheds some further insight on Ms. Carter and HL's state of well-being. I know a lot of people disagree with me on this issue, but I also know that it is important to be asking the questions, because it really does matter if HL is being exploited.

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Emily Bell

about 3 years ago

Nelle Harper Lee once said that she wanted to be the Jane Austen of south Alabama. Perhaps we feel about her the way that the English feel about Austen. Recently a turquoise ring that had belonged to Jane Austen was put up for auction and horror of horrors, Kelly Clarkson bought it. An American pop singer! So the UK government passed an export ban and she was not allowed to take it out of the country. Funds were raised and the ring was purchased from her and it is now on display in England. All this news about "Go Set a Watchman" reminds me about how protective we are of our literary heroes. No one wants Ms. Lee to be taken advantage of but there are greedy souls within the legal, publishing and bookselling worlds. Yesterday, I was mortified that one retailer was salivating over the possibility of being a stop on a possible book tour. Perhaps we will be given more information that will shed light on the discovery and decision to publish the new book. In any event, we should all expect to discuss this and any other topic like grown-ups and not 5 year olds!

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Emily: Agreed. This is how we learn so much of what is truly important in life, this give and take between us, this sharing.

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Faye Bryant

about 3 years ago

I have wondered this same thing, Karen. The ugliness of the anonymous is sickening. I wonder sometimes if that person typing behaves in the same way when facing people or if they hold back so much in real life that given the chance online they explode. I have often disagreed with you and have said so. I usually say, "I don't agree with you. I believe _______." Sometimes that's really hard to do, but it's the right thing. Sometimes I make less controlled choices, but the walls don't tend to mind how loudly I rail. Keep on, brave one.

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Thank you, Faye. I am not dissuaded to back away when the heat turns up. Often, I have found that the reason people get their backs up is because there is some truth in what is being said. Someone once told me that readers like writers who hold up mirrors that show them the people they imagine themselves being and despise writers who hold up mirrors that show them the people they are. Perhaps .

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Rebekah Sanderlin

about 3 years ago

For myself, I beat down the urge to spew ugliness by never commenting with anything other than my full name. First and last. No exceptions. When I'm tempted to use an alias, I ask myself why. The reason is never good, so I just don't do it. I think back to my early days in the news business, back when a newspaper would never even consider publishing an unsigned letter, and when every letter writer's thoughts were published with their honest-to-God mailing address. Remember those days? Accountability breeds thoughtfulness. If we all demanded that people stand behind their words, a lot more people would be upstanding. For this same reason, I won't even read comments written by people who use anything less than a first and last name. If they're too cowardly to own their own words, why should I waste my time reading their thoughts?

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Karen Spears Zacharias

about 3 years ago

Rebekah: I honestly thing you are on to something. If everyone was required to give their full name, and address, they might be far more thoughtful about what they post. Invariably the ugliest comments I receive are penned under aliases with fake email accounts. Yes, it is easy to be ugly when you think you will never have to look that person in the eye again.

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