Libraryland is sometimes plagued with a civility problem.
We disagree but we want to be nice about it. But sometimes, being nice isn’t a great way to express disagreement. Life and the world is messy and unkind and difficult. And sometimes our commitment to our ideas and passionate disagreements need to reflect that.
But the temptation for those in power — those at whom the anger is often directed — need to keep a lid on the very human anger and resentments that often boil over in what might seem like minor disagreements. It’s hard to control those kinds of deep feelings and the best way to control the conversation can often be to control, diffuse and dispossess the anger.
Not always, of course, sometimes the anger can go overboard. Threats and serious character assassination aren’t acceptable. But really, I think the bar should be very high before a call for civility is used to shut down the argument.
I like the way Bora Zivkovic puts it in a recent tweet:
Call for fake, condescending “civility” = avoidance of substance = maintaining the illusion that ‘we are above you': http://wapo.st/kGzekv
The Washington Post article he points to is MSNBC’s suspension of Mark Halperin is way over the top, about a commentator that was suspended for using some vaguely inappropriate language:
I’m sorry, but this is crazy. Halperin’s crack was crude and dumb, but it doesn’t deserve indefinite suspension. Halperin’s use of an expletive is trival when compared with the degradation of our political discourse we witness on a regular basis from Halperin and many others — degradation that is seen as perfectly acceptable because no curse words are employed. Suspending Halperin only reinforces a phony definition of “civility” in our discourse, in which it’s unacceptable to use foul language and be “uncivil,” but it’s perfectly acceptable for reporters and commentators to allow outright falsehoods to pass unrebutted; to traffic endlessly in false equivalences in the name of some bogus notion of objectivity; and to make confident assertions about public opinion without referring to polls which show them to be completely wrong.
I care that Halperin does dumb things like parroting GOP predictions of a big victory when all available evidence is pointing the other way, as he famously did in the runup to the 2006 elections. I don’t care as much that he used the word “dick.” Suspending Halperin indefinitely for this only reinforces the bogus idea that a crass and dumb slip into foul language is worse than all this other stuff we see on a regular basis.
In other words, what he was really saying was discounted because he showed a bit of very human anger in the way he expressed himself.
Now, I’m not going to pretend I’m not incredibly torn by this whole issue. Slagging people left and right isn’t discourse. No one should have total carte blanche in terms of insulting or accusatory language and behaviour. And no, I don’t know what the boundaries are between “acceptable anger” and going too far.
And yes, I’ve been angry on the Internet in a way that perhaps wasn’t the most productive. But I always hope that people will give me the benefit of the doubt when I overstep. And I always hope I’ll have the courage and grace to give others that same benefit when their passion spills over a little into anger.
I really don’t have definitive answers, only more questions.
What do you think?
And yes, feel free to let me know how you really feel, here or via email at jdupuis at yorku dot ca if you’d prefer not to go on the record.