Revisiting the difficult conversations that people don't want to have

For my civility day post, I wanted to connect a few dots…third-rail dots that are quite similar, but often seen as unrelated. In my own blogging I have tried to made it safe to discuss race by saying no question is dumb, and that mutual understanding can be gained only be holding discussions, not shouting sessions. What this requires from me, though, is a lot of listening, and self-censorship to a degree — with those who disagree or are coming from a place of anger, resentment or fear, I really have no latitude to become angry or defensive. If I do, it only affirms the belief that the topic cannot be discussed and worse, they can’t trust engaging any black person on the topic. While that seems ridiculous, it has played itself over and over, as an entire race is colored by a single negative interaction with a person — as if class, education, local, family history has no bearing on the individual in question. How ludicrous would it be to say that if I were mugged by a white man that I would then fear all white men? But don’t have to look far — look what happened at the Valley Swim Club, to see that even black children are seen as a threat because of ignorance and fear imprinted on those white club members.

I’m sure none of the members of The Valley Swim Club believe that they are racist, despite the outrageous act of denying minority children access to its pool, because, as John Duesler, president of the club said “There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion …and the atmosphere of the club.” I’m sure it was just a poor choice of words, right? Or the sentiments of one mother, who, upon spotting the group of children said ‘Uh, what are all these black kids doing here? I’m scared they might do something to my child.'” That label “racist” is clearly radioactive to most people. In their minds they rationalize away such incidents because a real racist burns a cross on someone’s lawn, or ties a black man to the back of a truck and drags him until his limbs fall off.

They just want to be with “their own kind,” right? The justification for self-segregation has lent itself to uncivil behavior and comments in the name of preserving a feeling of comfort for the members of the club, to ensure privilege doesn’t get examined or dealt with. As you saw in the comments of one article written about this story, all sorts of strawman arguments came out — too many kids, too rowdy, not enough lifeguards, etc. For those who enjoy lobbing uncivil bombs into the public discourse, calling these children animals gave them a sad, sick level of satisfaction. We can do better than this.


A lot of uncivil discourse is tied directly to the anonymity of the Internet. It provides people the opportunity to cloak themselves and go buck wild online in the most bizarre and embarrassing ways they would never engage in offline. It’s gotten so outrageous that a whole new lexicon has been developed to deal with the phenomenon — flaming, trolling, sockpuppeting, meatpuppeting, astroturfing, comment-spamming, threadjacking — as people engage in all kinds of unethical idiocy that they can’t get away with in the real world (I highly recommend reading “Dealing with hate speech, flaming, and trolls,” by Jon Pincus).

More below the fold.What’s disturbing about the above behavior is that it often reflects the true character of some people, who obviously feel stifled by civil society’s norms and need an outlet to cut loose. Etiquette, and now netiquette, are generally followed by most people here at the Blend and around the blogosphere, even in vigorous debate, but for the trolls, sockpuppets and the like, they are “gifted” with an inordinate amount of narcissism that plays out in these bizarre online behaviors precisely because they feel they can “get away” with it. It’s as if they feel compelled to role play alternately as a bully and victim in order to misdirect conversations and give themselves some level of ego satisfaction that they cannot attain in the real world.

Taking a hostile digital dump in virtual community space over and over is infantile behavior, and when it is called out, the troll or offender often holds a tantrum in front of the community, like a kid with crumbs on their mouth and all over the floor saying they weren’t in the cookie jar, saying it’s your fault for coming into the room and pointing out the behavior. This happens everywhere in the blogosphere, every day. There’s even a Blogger’s Code of Conduct out there.

I happen to agree with Colin Rule:

So is it true that civility and politeness should go out the window when confronted with deep and intense feelings? Well, not to sound too much like “Mr. Manners,” but I think it’s at that point that civility and politeness come to matter more. When emotions get the better of someone, and that person uses language intended to incite and shock rather than reason, it creates an easy target for the other side; the most likely response becomes a similar provocative statement, and then the exchange becomes focused on the excesses of each statement rather than the issues at hand….

This dialogue gets us nowhere. It makes it easy to dismiss the other side as foolish, nonsensical, and incapable of rational dialogue. This, in turn, worsens the disagreement and encourages further extremism. The only way out of this situation is for reasoned individuals to say enough is enough, and to rebuild a moderate majority who insist upon civil, polite dialogue.

The bottom line is no one who shows up in this virtual coffeehouse has a “right” to comment here, it’s a privilege granted when you sign up. It’s one that can be revoked at any time for any reason. And that’s not “silencing” anyone — everyone is free to create a blog and utter it in your own personal space. That’s what I did back in July 2004, and no one was reading what I had to say for a long time, and it didn’t matter a whit.

And it’s not just the Internet that’s a haven for uncivil behavior; we see it in the offline world all the time. The WaPo’s John Kelly has started a “Radical Civility” movement.

In my column today I announce the start of the Radical Civility movement. This is in response to the growing perception that people are getting ruder and things are going to hell.

We can let that happen, or we can act. There are many places where we can practice Radical Civility–both being polite ourselves and requesting it of others–but I’ve chosen to start in one area: movie theaters, specifically: trying to end the practice of texting during films. It isn’t quite as ingrained as some other behaviors. Maybe we can dispatch it before it hardens into place.

We will track the progress of the campaign here in “John Kelly’s Commons.” I invite you to add your observations, experiences and suggestions in the comments section below. You may also e-mail me: While the focus is on texting, I welcome all stories of impolite behavior. Call it “Random Acts of Rudeness.”

But let’s focus now not on what one can or can’t say in a virtual coffeehouse, but how to address difficult issues. The free speech comment zone week was interesting, to say the least. People could say anything they wanted in the comments, and write diaries about any topic they wished. Despite fears that the place would become a zoo of epithets and bullying, on the whole it proved not to be the case. In fact, the pattern that developed was that almost every news piece had civil threads, as did most opinion posts. Where people got into trouble were in some of the trans-related threads. What does that tell us? That we aren’t communicating well on those topics, and it’s where people need to give people a wider berth for understanding, mistake-making and less lashing out.

The rancor I’ve seen over the last couple of weeks reminds me so much of the problem our country has with race — we’ll never know how to build bridges if people aren’t willing to express their fears and ignorance without getting their heads bitten off. By the same token, no rational discussion about sensitive topics can take place if that expression is not really about engaging tactfully or diplomatically, but unloading frustrations in a way that is hurtful and shuts down conversation. That’s what happens when people leave these discussions buried — they come out in all the wrong ways, resulting flashpoints at the completely wrong time.

People will be reluctant to publicly broach the subject of trans folk in LGBT movement (or race matters) lest they be labeled with the radioactive word “bigot,” or told they are protecting/defending privilege and not listening to see if the person is just fumbling for the right way to ask a question. Nothing shuts down the conversation or draws a line in the sand faster.

I don’t have a solution, of course, it’s a matter of observing human nature and how difficult we often make things for one another when we talk all around the real problem — the lack of ability to communicate effectively. Society pays a sad price of silence when people on opposite sides of an issue (or even the same side for that matter) cannot engage in a civil manner in order to discuss the difficult issues and work together for common understanding of them.

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