What to Do About Sick Civil Discourse Syndrome.

AuthorEpstein, Nadine

I first noticed what I've termed Sick Civil Discourse Syndrome (SCDS) on a digital platform around 2007, when my Moment inbox was flooded by hundreds of hateful emails insisting that then-presidential candidate Barack "Hussein" Obama was a Muslim and/or born in Kenya. Some of the emails appeared to be part of coordinated campaigns.

A little more than ten years later, healthy civil discourse is withering, in part because of the combustive mix of politics and digital communication. The ease with which otherwise seemingly civilized humans act out in the isolation of the internet is astonishing: People on the right and left throw out feral comments and misinformation--willfully or otherwise--use dismissive and judgmental language, and mistake snark and sarcasm for wit and wisdom. Worse, SCDS has leapt beyond email and social media to infect written and spoken discourse, both private and public, creating a pandemic that needs to be addressed.

It is easy to throw up our hands, blame someone else (Mark Zuckerberg), something else (algorithms, huge corporations, the government, over-zealous free-market proponents) or the unfortunate confluence of human nature and technology, for this sad state of affairs. There is truth in all of this--we may need, for example, to break up tech companies and/or rethink how they function. But even so, we can begin by taking action ourselves to tame the Wild West of the web. As tech writer Clive Thompson says in his book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, the engineers and designers who invented the web were introverts who didn't foresee the dark ways their platforms would be used. I don't know whether they could have, but now we know, and there's no time to waste.

We can change our behavior to protect the health of virtual civil discourse. There is plenty of precedent in the nonvirtual world: Debate--developed in ancient Greece and India, then in Enlightenment England--gives form to argument; Robert's Rules of Order provides structure for political discussion; journalistic norms help frame the conversation about current affairs; and standards for all kinds of behavior--from love to warfare--lead to a veneer of civility and, sometimes, to societal transformation. These structures and standards don't always work, but together they have given civilization the space to grow. Jewish thought, too, builds civil disagreement into the system: The Talmudic model, for example, allows rabbis to...

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