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Is incivility killing our culture?

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Greg Peck
June 20, 2013

I’m never quite comfortable talking live on the air. My wife says I sounded nervous while speaking Monday morning with guest host Tom Edwards on WCLO’s talk show. Maybe if I did it more, I’d be more at ease. Writers have more time to thoughtfully select just the right words and phrases. Perhaps that’s why, even though I minored in radio-TV-news, I majored in journalism and became a newspaper man.

Anyway, the focus Monday was Sound Off and incivility. I told Tom how we try to tone down the vitriol in our anonymous Sound Off feature, which runs Wednesdays and Sundays. We don’t let an anonymous caller attack a letter writer—someone with the guts to put a name behind his or her opinions—by name. We also try to eliminate name-calling. We don’t let callers criticize nonprofits or specific business practices unless these issues have been in the news.

Edwards thinks incivility began when our forefathers crafted a constitution that ensures freedom of religion and Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter referencing the need for separation between church and state. I’d argue incivility goes back to the time someone’s dog first pooped on a neighbor’s lawn—or perhaps some cave man’s pet dinosaur soiled his neighbor’s so-called territory. In other words, it has been around probably as long as humans. Bullying and road rage are daily examples of our incivility.

In Wisconsin, political incivility reached its height a couple of years ago when the Republican-controlled state Legislature steered through Gov. Walker’s controversial Act 10, which all but erased collective bargaining for most public employees. No one needs reminding of the raucous protests at the state Capitol.

However, neither conservatives nor liberals have the market cornered on incivility.

I’ve written about incivility in editorials at least twice. The Association of Opinion Journalists, of which I’m a member, in 2011 started the Civility Project. As project director Frank Partsch put it, the idea is to “draw a line between robust, hard-hitting, withering commentary and, on the other hand, cheap-shot, below-the- belt incivility.”

I’m not sure we’re having an impact, though another controversial state budget is passing through the Legislature this week without such massive protests. I suspect, however, that things will get downright uncivil again when Walker is running for re-election.

One of the fastest-growing forums for people wanting to speak their minds, as The Providence Journal put it, is online “free-for-alls that treat facts and lies as equals.”

That’s another reason why The Gazette’s new website, which will go online later this summer—yes, it IS coming—will allow only subscribers to comment. As Editor Scott Angus explained in a March 31 column, we hope that limiting comments to only people who pay will eliminate the vast majority of nasty comments. The hope is that us knowing who each commenter is—even though they can use fake online names—will have a modifying effect, as well.

Some of our civic leaders have argued that the nasty tenor of online comments on our website reflects poorly on our community and can make it tougher to attract people and businesses. They may have a good point.

Here’s the key point: Though debate and protest are cherished 1st Amendment rights, why not exercise them considerately and courteously? When you use incendiary, condescending and disrespectful language, it does nothing to sway a reader’s or listener’s mind. Rather than convince others that you’re right, they’re likely to ignore valid points because of your offensive tone.

Greg Peck can be reached at (608) 755-8278 or gpeck@gazettextra.com. Or follow him on Twitter or Facebook



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