A Loss of Civility

2womenWe have all seen it or experienced it. A friend introduces a subject on social media for comment or conversation and then, suddenly, the discourse takes a turn for the worse. The conversation degenerates into a name-calling, side-picking brawl, engaging perfect (or near perfect) strangers into verbal fistfights as bystanders who are less committed to the battle try to pull the combatants apart.

Frankly, seeing adults treat each other with so much discourtesy is disappointing. I am thankful the social media outlets my children frequent are not the same ones patronized by adults. I would hate for my children to observe how some adults know so little about the appropriate way to have productive, pleasant social discourse.

We all make mistakes. We use a word that inflames another person. We let angry feelings creep into our language. We make assumptions about other people. We let our pride express itself in our comments. I have done it. So, what is the best way to avoid offense? What is the best way to practice civility?

Here are some tips provided by George Washington in his pamphlet Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour that would be good to follow (even on social media):

#1: Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.

#49: Use no reproachful language against anyone; neither curse nor revile.

#58: Let your conversation be without malice or envy, for it is a sign of a tractable and commendable nature; and in all cases of passion admit reason to govern.

#65: Speak not injurious words, neither in jest or earnest; scoff at none although they give occasion.

#68: Go not thither, where you know not, whether you shall be welcome or not. Give not advice without being asked and, when desired, do it briefly.

#70: Reprehend not the imperfections of others, for that belongs to parents, masters, and superiors.

#83: When you deliver a matter, do it with passion and with discretion, however mean the person be you do it to.

#110 [the last]: Labour [sic] to keep alive in your breast that little celestial fire called conscience.

Even better, I have memorized (but, sadly, do not consistently follow) this verse:

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. [James 1:19-20]

My mother always said, “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.” I have found it liberating to discover I do not have to opine about every topic that is introduced on social media.

civility2Finally, there are several things it is helpful to remember when commenting on social media:

  • The people behind the profile picture are real people with real families and they often live in your community. You might run into them at the grocery store.
  • Everything you post on social media, whether in a public or private group, is public. Do not be surprised or offended when someone shares a social media post of yours. Once posted, the horse is out of the barn, whether you delete it or not.
  • Once you make someone dislike you, there is very little chance you will change his or her position on a topic.

Social media should be civil. Removing the personal interaction from a relationship makes it easy to express things one would never say to a person face-to-face (at least, not without a punch or two being thrown). Though it is easy to say whatever one thinks and flaunt one’s right of free speech, there is little opportunity to influence others through speech, unless one practices civility.


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