–Editorial, Britt Santowski, Sooke PocketNews
Conversation, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, means “an informal, usually private, talk in which two or more people exchange thoughts, feelings, or ideas, or in which news or information is given or discussed.”
As more of our conversations shift online and away from face-to-face, other aspects of this dying art are also changing. No longer is a conversation an exchange thoughts, or feelings, or ideas using available information to make sense of the world we live in. Instead, it’s become a race to outrage.
Open minds are slamming shut with dangerous speed. Memes trigger outrage. Nasty one-liners (my ironic favourite: “Your an idiot”) instantly shut down conversation and speedily escalate entitlement to rage.
You don’t have to look far. Our small town of Sooke is represented in a number of Facebook social groups where nastiness attracts the accident-scene-onlookers in droves, and inspires behaviour that would never happen if these conversations actually took place face-to-face. Councillors also recently spoke to unbelievably vile emails received from the public, directed to staff and council, in response to the building of a salmon hatchery where a building was almost completed before ever receiving the building permit allowing construction to begin.
Have we really lost our ability to sit with a range of opinions and information and arrive at an agreement, while still respecting personal differences? We say to our children, “I’m not mad at you, it’s your behaviour I don’t like”; with equal ease, we then go online and blast out the most hateful commentary we can muster against the person who dared to post something with which we moderately disagree.
Consider the most recent matter in Victoria, where Councillor Ben Isitt made a motion that proposed exploring federal cost-sharing for a local event: “That Council direct staff to engage DND/Veterans Affairs Canada officials to seek to recover costs associated with military events in the City.” For near decades now, federal austerity has resulted in the downloading of expenses to provinces, who then download to municipalities. Municipalities try to upload where possible. Granted, it’s a ridiculous shell game of what funding pile the money comes from, to make the current group of elected officials look good, but that’s a conversation left for another day.
Isitt’s motion made no mention of taking money from individual Veterans or reducing their services. It was a logistic matter, attempting to push at least a portion of the financial responsibility back up to the federal government. Anyone who knows how government budgets work knows that departments and ministries are given an allotment each year, and what they don’t spend is taken away. An examination of existing spending and then assessing/reassessing priorities is not an unreasonable request. Isitt’s motion was what taxpayers often demand: A search for funding alternatives so that their own tax contributions (in this case municipal) are reduced. It was not a directive or an order, it was an exploratory ask.
And social media exploded into outrage, with made-up facts and assertions that resulted in physical threats against Isitt for daring to propose something he didn’t even ask.
In Sooke, we’ve had similar imbalanced bursts of outrage. Remember the hateful vitriol when our mayor deigned to ask the public on social media if they wanted food trucks in town? Mayor Maja Tait was doing what we actually demand of our politicians: gauging the interests of their electorate, asking, listening, and working to represent it in shaping local policy. Instead, Mayor Tait was mocked and relentlessly attacked for daring to ask.
We live in an age where the most influential man in the world, the President of the United States, has no issue with locker-room talk about grabbing women “by the pussy.” He has no procedural filters when he takes to Twitter to shame individual citizens. His response to every criticism—even in the face of concrete evidence—is (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Nuh uh, no proof, fake news.” He is renowned for not reading … anything. His complete and utter lack of protocol or grace, and speed-of-light emotional outbursts are shaping our sense of acceptable online behaviour.
It appears he has become our accidental role model. Far too many—from all sides of the political spectrum—are mimicking his online vitriol with equal gusto. And, that type of behaviour, that type of shoot-from-the-hip condescending shaming and name-calling to win an argument is juvenile, immature, small-minded, and wrong.
Three simple changes can help us become better at participating in online conversations. My suggestions are pretty simple, though they do require time, work and self-awareness.
- First, if you find you are having an over-the-top emotional response to anything, STOP, look deeper and force yourself to open your mind to other perspectives.
- Second, never respond to a news story on social media without first having read the article. Read it, and you’ll instantly become a member of the informed minority.
- Third, don’t post what you would not say in-person, face-to-face.
Populists governments (left to right to everything in between) are taking advantage of the public’s rather mindless swing to voluntarily eliminate filters that previously informed public behaviour and discourse. Why? Because much easier to trigger vitriol and bile, to leverage entitlement, to create divisiveness, and to kill debate. It’s the mass dumbing-down and silencing of a general public, without the public even being aware of this externally-guided but self-inflected social malaise.
The art of conversation dies every time a mind slams shut, as people race to be the online Winner, shaming those who didn’t get the same conclusion fast enough. Or loudly enough.
Don’t let this happen. We can be better than that.
Publisher and founder