Civility vs. Civil Unrest – A New Approach for a New Year

Online civility. It has become an oxymoron almost as ludicrous as “jumbo shrimp” and a topic that most of us at least think about each and every day every time we open up an app. Yet, are things really as bad as they seem and is there a light at the end of the tunnel moving forward?

NPR’s Katie Moritz recently weighed in on the subject with Alexandra Hudson, a research fellow at the American Institute of Economic Research, who is working on a new book on the topic, particularly as it relates to politics. And while Hudson concedes things have become more brutal since the 2016 election, she points to the presidential election of 1800 between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams as being particularly nasty. Of course, then unlike now, it was easier to avoid the bitterness.

Therein lies the rub. Be it Twitter, Facebook or the comments on news articles, social media has the ability to offend thousands or even millions instantly. Not to mention the forum to simultaneously and instantaneously enlist like-minded individuals to a discussion thread. Here, a “mob mentality” can often develop, with individuals empowered by their own group and emboldened by the impersonal nature of the ‘net. This is not face-to-face interaction but often “in your face” vitriol than can quickly escalate into profane personal attacks. Not exactly the hallmark of a civilized society.

Still, Hudson contends and research shows, despite the appearance of a world unhinged and a nation divided like never before, what we often see and experience on social media is not truly representative of the vast majority of the people in this country. As we tell our clients, hostile social media comments are not scientific samples of public opinion. They are subsets of subsets and, often, represent the outliers.

In other words, there is a lot more gray and a lot less red-hot white or black. In fact, a recent study of political tribalism in the U.S. showed that once we remove the far left and far right “activists” who are often the most ardent and active online, we find that the majority of Americans – some 67% – are closer to center and exhausted by the extremes.

That is a harbinger of hope for 2020. That things are not necessarily as bad as they seem, for politics or for brands. That they can always get better. That we should all keep on talking, communicating and debating as long as it is done with an open mind and civil tongue. We also need to be more willing to find middle ground or, at a minimum, more amenable to agreeing to disagree. That is more who we are. Here’s to making it even more so in the new year.