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11.10.2003 Feature Article

The Rise Of Incivility In Our Public Discourse

The Rise Of Incivility In Our Public Discourse
11.10.2003 LISTEN

: CHARTING A STANDARD FOR PRODUCTIVE DEBATES. Ghanaweb forum offers a great opportunity for Ghanaians all over the world to interact at the same time in far away places. The forum could serve as a market place of ideas for Ghanaians all over the globe; a place to dialogue, to debate cogently on public policies, and to come up with innovative and new ideas to shape and direct our country. However, the nature of public discourse taking place on the Ghanaweb forum has become one of the most hotly debated issues of late. As incivility increases on the forum, one of the questions that confront some people is how to maintain the benefit of free discourse while simultaneously minimizing antisocial communications and behavior. Incivility will be used in this article to refer to aversive behaviors, disrespect, improprieties and lack of etiquette in our public discourse.

The goal of a productive debate is to focus on the strengths and weaknesses of proposed solutions to community problems without engaging in personal attacks against those who favor different solutions. The claims made by two arguers are regarded as reasonable only if they contribute to the resolution of the differences of opinions. However, the nature of discussions taking place on the forum where personal attack has replaced substantive argument is what informal logicians describe as argumentum ad hominem. There are three variants of this: the abusive variant (direct personal attack), the circumstantial variant (indirect personal attack), and the tu quoque variant. It is the first variant of the ad hominem attack that is of interest in this discussion.

A direct personal attack occurs when an arguer substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. A direct attack is generally considered as a grave insult, because in most cases it challenges the prevailing decency values, and leads to loss of face of the addressee. Many a time our inability to deal with a broad range of problems in our country results from the destructive way in which issues are addressed. Many forumers are interested in attacking one another instead of discussing the issues that are important to the country. People engage in personal attack when they attack the opponents’ knowledgeability, intelligence, personality, or question their good faiths by portraying them as ignorant, stupid or unreliable.

While some people argue their case soberly, using civilized language and confining themselves to an objective critique of public discourse, others stooped to unacceptable depths of calumny and personal attacks. Many overstep the bounds of decency in the virulent personal attacks they direct against their opponents. The objective school of public debate has gradually lost ground to a defamatory style based on hurling insults at the opponent, in which opponents find it easier to humiliate the proponents of the opposing points of view than to argue their own case on its merits. Numerous examples attest to the prevalence of this phenomenon on the forum, where differences of opinion over a specific issue are often expressed in the form of vituperative exchanges of accusations and personal insults.

The destructive way in which issues are addressed on this forum makes it difficult to address issues in a meaningful and rational way. Rudeness to political opponents and people who hold different views is becoming pervasive, escalating, and could very well ruin this forum. We are all humans who deserve a basic level of respect and politeness. There is a tendency for those engaged in this kind of rudeness to blame “the other guys” because they started it first. There is no excuse for this behavior. For nobody is unhappier than the perpetual reactor. People who act rather than react know who they are, what they stand for, and how they should behave themselves in the midst of provocations. Such people refuse to return incivility, because then they would no longer be in command of their own conducts.

In order to address the problem of incivility on the forum, one has to ask these questions: What can account for the increase in rudeness and incivility in our public discourse? Why are people behaving more rudely and discourteously? Has technology contributed to the rise in incivility? Has our sense of community degenerated to the point where we are no longer concerned with the needs of others and with shared values? Some experts believe that the new generation cares less and less about their neighbors or fellow citizens. They see their neighbors as obstacles or competitors, unless they happen to be their close friends, they rarely think they owe them anything. An increased emphasis is placed on private life and less attention devoted to shared community norms and values. It was this societal shift towards increased focus on ourselves that disturbed Emile Durkheim (a French sociologist), who forecast the breakdown of a society into anomie---a breakdown of social norms and its condition where norms no longer control the activities of members in society.

There are others who believe that technological advances have provided new ways to be rude and intrusive. Through the electronic media we can say rude, and disrespectful things that we would be less likely to express over the phone or in face-to-face interaction. There seem to be a general agreement among social scientists studying incivility on Internet chatroom that besides anonymity, technology contributes to the deindividuation of its users just as drivers confined to their small environs are proned to aggressiveness and irritations. The object of wrath, much like the driver of another car can be dehumanized. People lose sight of the real human being on the other side of their verbal aggression.

Furthermore, some experts believe that one of the sources of the abuse in the Internet chatroom or forum stems from the ease of concealing identity, using no name or false names. Lamenting on the issue of anonymity Gilbert writes, “the element of anonymity that contributes to reduced prejudice can be exploited negatively to provide incivility, allowing immature, insecure people to throw their virtual weight around, harassing people and interfering with their attempts at pleasant on line chatting.” Although anonymity and pseudonymity are imbued in English with a negative connotation; anonymity has honorable history in the world of philosophy and politics. In US history, the seminal Federalist Papers, which was approved in 1787 under the pen name “Publius,” has contributed greatly to political thought (Froomkin, 1995). Novelists with different styles sometimes use various pen names. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegard wrote under sixteen pseudonyms, Charles Dodgson wrote as Lewis Carroll, and Eric Blair wrote as George Orwell. As the work of these writers illustrate, anonymity and pseudonymity are not inherently antisocial in of themselves.

There are others who trace incivility of the human race to our primitive instinctual desires. Freud in his book, “Civilization and Its Discontents” asserts that for the ordinary human beings, “their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and kill him. And because of this aggressiveness, civilization is constantly threatened with disintegration and must impose even more severe and actually unreasonable demands on the instinctual life of human beings.”

But in an infant democracy such as ours, we want people to have freedom of inquiry and belief, when people come to conclusions. A rude response can trigger three levels of indignation: personal affront, thwarted cooperation, and crippled inquiry. All of which hinder productive debate and dialogue. It seems some people come to this forum loaded with negative emotions waiting for a chance to let them loose. Some people come here loaded and ready to do battle with anyone perceived as opposing their thoughts or views. There are some on the forum that have thought loyalty. There is a sense in which people who hold the same political views support any view expressed by a member of the group, no matter how outlandish it may be.

Our participatory democracy cannot avoid addressing tough questions that affect various interest groups. The many differing interests and our diverse ethnic, political and religious society will produce an endless series of confrontations over difficult political, ethnic, and distributional issues, many of which are not amenable to consensus resolution. While continuing confrontations in public discourse is unavoidable, the destructive way in which they are being carried out on this forum can be avoided.

We all can work individually and collectively to increase the constructiveness of our public discourse. There are many ways we can contribute to this: first we have to conduct our deliberation in the spirit of amity. People have to recognize that other caring and thoughtful people have different ways, and views on how best to deal with community’s diverse and complex issues. Constructive debate needs to focus on solutions, which are politically expedient, economically feasible and socially acceptable instead of personal attacks leveled by adversaries against one another. There are times when public debates revolve around factual disagreement which are amenable to resolution through some type of fact-finding process. Failure to pursue the facts and let the chips fall where they may, can unnecessarily prolong resolution in public discourse. There are instances where factual issues cannot be resolved because of some uncertainties associated with the limits of scientific inquiry. When this is the case contending parties need to publicly explain the reasoning behind their differing interpretations of the factual information.

Sociability in debate may be important for many reasons, even for the fundamental epistemic reason of keeping debate a fruitful avenue of inquiry and for basic ethical duties to other inquiries. Any democracy is threatened if people can no longer talk about issues without insults. The person does not have to hold the same beliefs as you do, or come from the same tribe, or hold the same political ideology as you do, but we all deserve respect, politeness, and the willingness by others to listen to our opinions on this forum. Civility demands us to give respect and politeness to others. Let us be respectful, humble, and kind to one another. We need to recapture the great “Akuapem Respect/Politesse.” It was Goethe who said, “ Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together. Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.

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