The Importance of Civility

ATTENTION: See update below (1/21/11)

There is no debating the rise of incivility in our political discourse here in the United States, or the reality that vitriol is undermining the very functioning of our democracy. What is often overlooked is that we are all to blame for this crisis. That is the message of my editorial today in the San Jose Mercury News newspaper.

Here in the United States the topic of civility has been front-burner, given the tragic shooting in my native state of Arizona of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and many others. The motives of the killer remain unclear, but the anger-filled rhetoric we hear and read every day is very real.

The current debate is why the San Jose Mercury News ran my editorial, and I’m grateful to the editor there for giving me a platform to espouse my thesis of a “digital hollows.”

I have argued for some time now that the onslaught of information in our interconnected age has combined with our use of self-filtering technology to isolate us from points of view that clash with our own biases. We place ourselves in hollows — often pronounced “hollers” — little different than the rural residents of early Appalachian settlements.

This isolation leads to a hardening of positions and an increasing intolerance of other opinions, and it spreads rapidly and virally.

A little over a year ago I launched a movement to increase civility across the globe, at least online, with iCivility.com. I didn’t set out to radically overhaul the political discourse here in my adopted home, Washington, D.C. I set a more modest goal — improving discourse in our online world.

About a year ago I was introduced before a speech. The think-tank president introducing me commented on my launch of iCivility, and said “Patrick Ross has accomplished a lot of things in his time in Washington, but I’m afraid with this new effort he’s doomed to fail.”

I suppose it all depends on how you define success. If success is an Internet free of vitriol and ad hominem attacks, then yes, I am destined to fail. But if I manage to a few open-minded individuals with my message of civility; if those individuals share the message with a few friends; if as a result a handful of those online proactively moderate their own rhetoric and encourage moderation in the rhetoric of others; then I would call that a success.

If you share my view that civility is critical to society and political discourse, I encourage you to share this blog post with your online friends. Together we can make a difference together.

UPDATE: (1/21/11) I’ve received a lot of positive feedback since my call for increased civility ran in the San Jose Mercury News, and traffic at iCivility.com has been up. But many people have told me I need to expand the campaign across other social media, and I now have done so. Please “like” iCivility on Facebook and follow iCivility on Twitter and let’s make a difference together.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

7 Responses to “The Importance of Civility”

  1. Patrick, I hear your passion for this topic. The think-tank president who introduced you in such a fashion does not understand the power of intent. People who have the courage and passion of their convictions are the ones who affect history. This works both ways. People who argue for staying the same (or getting worse) have been successful too. Everyone contributes with the power of their intent.

    Everyone with a computer these days has so much more power than before. Anyone can blog, Twitter, espouse their views on Facebook, spread a negative news story across multiple social media outlets. I think many people don’t realize they have so much power, or that they can consciously determine how to use it. People are too used to thinking, “I’m just one person,” and that way of thinking can tend to let us off the hook.

    People doing non-sensational acts of goodwill typically get less press. Perhaps for this iCivility project you could take a leaf from your creatives project and interview people who, even in a small environment, are using their platforms consciously to spread love, unity, hope and peace. I know someone you could start with right away. And you could find an endless supply of people on Twitter who are doing that with their Twitterstreams.

    But maybe you’re already doing that. I haven’t visited the site yet. Now I’m off to read your editorial in the SJ Mercury News and click on the link to iCivility.

  2. Milli, thanks for this great comment, and your suggestions on http://www.iCivility.com . Yes, I’d love to interview some people for this site, as I have done with creatives (videos at http://www.youtube.com/patrickrossfilms ). On the iCivility site I actually ask people to nominate folks to be profiled. My problem has been that I launched this while working a FT-plus job. As you know, as of this month I am a FT freelancer, so I do hope to put more time into this passion of mine (along with everything else I’m doing!).

    As always, I welcome and appreciate your enthusiasm and support.

    • Also, have you thought of going viral with it on Twitter by signing up as @icivility? (I know the perils of running two Twitter accounts, but hopefully it would take on a life of its own :)). At the very least, you could start a hash tag. Let me know on Twitter if you do and I’ll Tweet about your project using the hash tag.

  3. Hi Patrick,
    great topic, great initiative, you have my support. You will be interested in a piece in today UK newspaper, The Guardian by Simon Jenkins, who says: “When the art historian and TV presenter Sir Kenneth Clark was asked what quality best defined civilisation, he did not answer with liberty or wealth or equality. He answered with courtesy, the framework of rules governing people’s tolerance of each other, so their discourse might be creative.”
    I think that about sums up your stance. Here is the link to the piece:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/jan/13/free-speech-us-politics-obama.

    Welcome to the wonderful world of freelancing and all good wishes for your projects.

    • Thank you, Orna, your endorsement means a lot to me. I’m a big fan of Sir Kenneth Clark, so it’s great to see that quote and read the Guardian piece. I’m also a fan of newspaper columnist Miss Manners, don’t know if she runs in any UK newspapers!🙂

      Thanks also for your support on my FT freelancing. The Mercury News piece was a nice way to start the year; now I need to get some PAID work!

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