This is a personal essay, with its attendant overuse of first person pronouns and possessives, so if you don't like that sort of thing, now is the time to stop reading. If you decide to continue reading, I hope you will learn a bit about me, and that you'll consider trying my experiment in civility yourself.
I have a contradictory nature.
On the one hand, people who interact with me, both in person and on the web, find me to be a likeable guy. I can be a bit sarcastic at times, but I don't have a go-for-the-throat attitude in conflict, and I prefer that people leave conversations with me feeling good about themselves.
On the other hand I have strong opinions on a number of topics, and often get involved in contentious issues, both in one on one conversations, and on the internet. In personal conversations in the "real world" it's easy to make criticism seem softer with use of body language and facial expression. On the internet sharply and clearly worded argument can often come off as angry and harsh.
Culture warriors and political crusaders are often derisive toward civility, and put forward the notion that we should be in a perpetual state of warfare with our opponents. Indeed, there are high stakes in a number of political and social issues. But does a sustained flow of angry rants really accomplish anything toward whatever goal we are seeking to acheive?
On social media in particular, millions of hours are wasted flinging insults across a digital barricade.
I am not suggesting that we all become amiable centrists, pretending that all political and social issues we face can be solved by outlining opposing positions, and then finding some center point compromise. There are a lot of goals worth fighting for, and some political stances are morally indefensible or bad practical policy.
I am suggesting that the venomous and shallow one-liners that pass for open political discussion do next to nothing in advancing the purported goals of either side of a polarized issue.
So until the end of February, I'm going to stay out of mindless flame wars. This doesn't mean that I won't enter contentious discussions, or that I won't call out inaccurate or dishonest assertions. It means I'll be much more careful about what exchanges I get into to begin with, and that I'll focus on presenting accurate and logically sound argument, rather than on "winning" with funny dialogue or clever rhetorical tricks.
I got the idea for this from a controversial statement in which Linus Torvalds, the developer of the Linux operating system kernel, defended his abrasiveness. He also indicated that he didn't care much about diversity in tech, but that's a subject for another essay.
Civility does matter, in politics, in technology, and elsewhere. It's impossible to really focus societal resources on problem-solving if the people who berate and bully the loudest tend to win.
Positivity is a separate but related issue. I'm going to articulate things in a manner that points to solutions, rather than just repeatedly focusing on the problem.
It's often necessary to point out the injustices and horrors in the world in order to provide an incentive to end them. But people often spend their time sitting at keyboards digitally ranting about the latest infraction of their enemy-of-the-day, rather than determining what practical and positive steps might help whatever cause they are supporting. This resembles the compulsion of the 24 hour news cycle to run the latest set of disasters or atrocities in short bursts every half hour or so, then move onto something else, forgetting about yesterday's story.
My goal with respect to positivity is to avoid obsession with any problem for which I don't have a clear and practical solution.
- God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
- The courage to change the things I can,
- And the wisdom to know the difference.
This doesn't mean that I advocate only taking on easy, bite-sized problems.
An example would be the problem of trolling and harassment on social media. It's obviously a problem. There may be solutions. But kicking trolls only has the effect of adding to the problem by allowing the abusers to point and say "SEE! THEY DO IT TOO."
A better solution would be to report abusive social media behavior, and to advocate for better reporting tools on twitter, facebook, and other places where harassment is a problem. Other solutions include helping in the criminal prosecutions of abusers who cross the line into lawlessness, and supporting the victims of the abuse.
All this could be done while focusing on positive solutions, rather than on engaging the abusers in meaningless internet combat.
So between now and February 28th I'm going to be on my best behavior. I'm going to be civil, and I'm going to focus on positive solutions. Wish me luck!