POSTED ON AUGUST 7, 2013:
Lesson in Civil Discourse
Own your words to legitimize them
Civil discourse is engagement in conversation with the intent to persuade or enhance understanding. In his book, Social Construction in Context, Kenneth Gergen, American psychologist and professor at Swarthmore College, describes it as "the language of dispassionate objectivity."
He goes on to suggest that it requires respect of other participants, such as readers. "It neither diminishes the other's moral worth, nor questions their good judgment; it avoids hostility, direct antagonism, or excessive persuasion; it requires modesty and an appreciation for the other participant's experiences," he wrote.
From coast to coast, civil discourse is precisely what has been missing in online media blogs. That is why the recent decision by Tulsa World management to require online commenters, like those in the print edition, to use their real name is a welcome one. From all indications, more and more traditional media sites are moving to moderated or full-disclosure approaches.
No one has tested the boundaries on what is acceptable quite like radio call-in shows whose anonymous talkback ranges from the anodyne to the intemperate to the inflammatory to the vile. It seems the medium itself has been unable to resist the temptingly good ratings fed by the most rabid diatribes imaginable.
Major newspapers, however, have been perhaps the biggest perpetrators of allowing online anonymity. In 2006, Gannett -- publishers of newspapers and media properties throughout the world -- began accepting anonymous article comments online, according to Tech Republic news outlet.
Since then, they have apparently grown weary of the results. Jodi Gersh, Gannett's social media director, told Tech Republic that "the level of conversation on stories turned into a place for racial slurs, name bashing and other negative behaviors. We worked tirelessly to resolve the issue, however the problem remained."
Now the media giant is moving toward holding commenters accountable for their words, and Gersh said the company has been pleased with the results and has seen increased civility in comment threads, along with increased participation from local public figures and other news sources.
Hopefully, other responsible media outlets in Tulsa -- like the weekly newspapers and network affiliated TV stations -- will follow the lead of Gannett, the Tulsa World and many others.
Study after study has shown that anonymity increases the likelihood that people will behave badly. Remember the infamous experiment by Yale professor Stanley Milgram in the 1950s? It instructed study participants to deliver supposedly increasingly painful electric shocks to "students" (portrayed by actors) when they answered memory questions incorrectly.
The study revealed that participants were more likely to give potentially lethal doses of electric shock to victims if they could not see them. It appears there is a correlation between this science and online interactions. People are apparently more inclined to be rude, hurtful, or thoughtless when they are not face to face, and especially when they can hide behind a mask of anonymity.
The relative anonymity of comments posted online promulgates freedom of speech without fear of the consequences. It often leads to hateful and vitriolic cyber bullying and unsubstantiated claims and accusations. Let's face it: nobody is served by this kind of irresponsible behavior.
The fact is, online comments are easily read and interpreted as more aggressive or threatening than they are likely intended. Because they lack the visual cues like body language, gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice, they can be easily misread and misinterpreted.
So what has happened to the traditional journalistic argument that anonymity is some sort of inalienable right? The fact is, commenting on media articles in not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment outlaws government restriction on speech. What a person or media mogul wants to restrict on their website has nothing to do with that.
The reason media sites are moving to do away with anonymous comments or requiring moderation is rather obvious. Total freedom has resulted in often venomous dialogue that is counter to the desired meaningful discussion the media outlet is trying to inspire. Purposeful, thoughtful, and carefully considered comments are discouraged. Rancorous, careless, noxious, and shoot-from-the-hip comments are seemingly encouraged.
While none come immediately to mind. There may be occasions when anonymity is prudent and justifiable. In reality, however, the most common reason for not putting one's name to one's opinions is not having the courage of one's convictions, or more simply stated, an act of outright cowardice.
Many of these blog posters consider their unrestricted freedom to say what they want in whatever way they want without regard for even a hint of civility as a healthy expression of democracy. Others view it as a democracy of the gutless whose principal weapon is malicious abuse against unsuspecting victims unable to defend themselves while the perpetrators hide behind the ramparts of their anonymity.
Thankfully, there is a nationwide movement trending away from anonymity without some level of filtering. The timing is good, because the courts have recently showed clear signs that pure anonymity without limitations is not wise.
Yes, we all have a constitutional right to anonymity on the Internet, up to a point. However, when you cross that line from protected speech to that which is truly harmful, you can be held accountable for your so-called anonymous post.
In 2011, the state of Georgia saw three cases of anonymous posters brought to court and fined in excess of $100,000, and it seems to be a growing trend.
Here's an idea: Let's revisit the art and artistry of applied rhetoric as a productive civil practice. Let's challenge the anonymous blog posters to discipline themselves. Let's ask them to utilize Aristotle's three persuasive audience appeals to make their point; logos, pathos, and ethos. Let's ask them to use reason and good judgment, as well as compassion and sympathy while recognizing the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, and practices of our community.
Let's also ask all Tulsa media outlets, large and small, to revisit their blog posting policies and determine if they are truly representative of the standards they value.
Here is the bottom line: Sign your work. I do. You should too.
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