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One of the hottest topics at this week’s MoNage (the Age of Messaging on the Net) conference in Boston is the breakdown of civility and discourse in the age of ubiquitous, always-on social media. Opening keynote speaker Jeff Jarvis said:

Later on in the day, friend and colleague CC Chapman reinforced the way we think of our interactions online:

Why is incivility and disrespect so prevalent online?

The answer is surprisingly easy to find, but difficult to solve: no consequences.

What price do you pay for being rude online? What consequences do you face for being a jerk to a stranger? The answer is almost none. We face comparatively few consequences for acting out, for forcing our opinions on others, for behaving inappropriately in a public forum because we are unlikely to ever interact with these people otherwise.

With no price to pay, with no consequences, people feel free to behave as they actually feel, to say what they actually think, even if it’s horrible.

Consider why you don’t behave with exceptional hostility to the people around you in real life. You have to interact with coworkers, connect with friends, live with family. Burning those bridges exacts stiff prices, from difficult working conditions, to an unpleasant home, to outright shunning by your friends. No one wants to keep company with a jerk.

The price of incivility in real life is exile from your community.

In pre-modern times, exile from your community was almost certainly a death sentence. Without the support of your tribe or village, you had to fend for yourself, and you didn’t last long. Even today, in some religions, excommunication may not literally kill you, but has significant spiritual consequences.

We still have an aversion to exile, to rejection, to isolation. We don’t face exile for the most part when we’re disrespecting others online. We’ve become so accustomed to a cultural norm of being jerks to each other that we don’t exact a price from others who are jerks to us.

There is no one solution to incivility, but we have a handful of options to help create more civility.

First and foremost, encourage pleasant days. Set your social media privacy settings to friends and excuse yourself from public forums where incivility runs rampant. In the same way martial arts teachers encourage us not to intentionally subject ourselves to unnecessary physical danger, we should not subject ourselves to unnecessary emotional or spiritual harm.

Second, participate and belong to communities you care about. When others are equally invested in a group, in a tribe, we care about exile. We care about remaining in the good graces of our group because we derive benefit from it. If you don’t belong to such a group, create one.

Third, as CC said in his talk, just keep scrolling. Avoid participating in topics that you know will devolve into the worst aspects of even the best of friends. Our parents often said that politics, money, sex, and religion were never to be discussed at the dinner table, not out of impropriety, but because those topics inevitably led to family in-fighting. Carry this rule over to your digital interactions, and avoid them except with friends you know can debate civilly.

Finally, know your own limits and what triggers you to emotional unrest, and work on mitigating those responses. Take up meditation with an app like Headspace. Subdue your own demons first, before you attempt to subdue others’ demons.

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance; the price of civility is eternal restraint. May we enjoy both.


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