‘Rude, snarky, uncivil, accusatory, destructive of the civic fabric, vicious, racist, ignorant, narcissistic, and closed-minded.”
Those were the adjectives used by my boss in last week’s publisher’s note to describe the level to which discourse has descended on the comments page at ForestParkReview.com and a good many other publications.
Ad hominem is the highbrow term for character assassination, i.e. if you can’t win a debate with rational arguments, go after your opponent’s character. We had way too much of that in the campaign ads we were subjected to in November.
Just as I was beginning to despair that civil discourse might have become extinct, two things happened to make me hopeful. One was a gathering at Oak Park Temple on Feb. 5. I thought it was going to be a debate on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Instead we talked about how we talk about controversial issues like what’s happening in the Middle East.
How do you keep the conversation civil? How do you try to understand the other person’s point of view? How do you get something done in Congress, in Springfield, in village hall?
In other words, it really is not about winning or losing, but how you play the game. Ultimately, when all the players play well and by the rules, everyone wins. At the synagogue I witnessed 15 clergy earnestly struggling to figure out how to return civility to civil discourse. I left the meeting feeling hopeful.
The second thing was reading Mayor Anthony Calderone’s One View in the Feb. 11 issue of the Review. The most inflammatory word he wrote was “bizarre” and that was used to describe a statement, not a person.
“Let’s have a campaign built on facts,” wrote the mayor.
This is not an endorsement of Calderone’s candidacy. Honestly, I haven’t made up my mind yet. Rather, it is an endorsement of his tone.
Meanwhile, I read statements about him and other candidates which included words like toxic, dark, ick, contempt for his constituents, talks down to constituents, smugly, gone stagnant, not genuine and asleep at the wheel.
I read those comments as being ad hominem. Calderone’s “facts” may be wrong, and it is appropriate to point that out, but I would be very, very hesitant to call him a liar if he sees reality differently than I do.
I, like most people, got upset by the killing of 11 people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Talk about ad hominem!
What got lost is the fact that Charlie Hebdo, to my mind, crossed the line of civil discourse many, many times under the banner of free speech. They insulted the prophet Muhammad and, therefore, millions of peace-loving Muslims all over the world by their cartoonish characterization of Islam’s founder.
Why? Just because in France they can. Most editors interviewed after the Charlie Hebdo incident admitted that they have self-imposed limitations on what they will print. Call it self-censorship.
Dan Haley, the publisher of the Review, decided to respond to discourse that has been rude, snarky, uncivil, accusatory and destructive of the civic fabric — i.e. posts by people who don’t seem to practice self-censorship — by requiring that contributors use Facebook Verified and thereby come out from hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. He hasn’t gone as far as the New York Times where a permanent staff of “comment moderators” edit what is submitted. Not yet.
An example of going too far in limiting freedom of speech — on the restrictive end of the spectrum — is North Korea, where a guy was arrested, convicted and jailed for leaving a Bible in a hotel room. It’s like Joe McCarthy in reverse.
Maybe we are waking up to the fact — on the permissive end — that freedom of speech needs limits. We already agree that no one has the right to holler “fire” in a crowded theater. We have laws against slander and libel. I would prefer that our culture would start praising appropriate self-censorship rather than claiming that every limitation on free speech is the start of a slippery slope towards fascism.
I went to church last Wednesday and got my forehead smudged with ashes and heard the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”
We are not gods. We are limited human beings. When we don’t manage both our speech and our silence properly, we erode our own well-being as well as that of society.
The next time you are tempted to write or say anything that is ad hominem, restrain yourself, for your own good and the good of our community.
Or, as Dragnet’s Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am. Just the facts.” Or, to quote another well-known authority, “Before you try to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye, it might be helpful to take the log out of your own.”