Ron Clewer: Is civility dead?

As posted on Rockford Advocate Monday, Feb 08, 2016


By Ron Clewer
CEO, Rockford Housing Authority

As is the case when I come across things that make me shake my head, I had to find data, analysis and research to help me better understand recent online rhetoric.

What was my specific predicament? Civility in public and political disagreement. Why? In the event you have been watching the debate on public, affordable and fair housing unfold, you may have seen some of the most uninformed and nasty commentary in threads trailing news stories and in social media.

Rancorous. Vitriolic. Sickening.

From local officials to our president, it seems no public figure is off limits these days. Contemporary public commentary goes well beyond the traditional public discourse to emphatic name calling, belittling and well, laughable insinuation and derelict comments. It’s bullying.

Being a public figure, requires not only that strong desire to improve our environment and represent others, but also to have the skin of a pachyderm.

It seems many recent meetings I’m in no longer start with the catching up on a few current events, kids, spouses, etc., but discussion about the latest posts trailing recent media coverage. Many comments are so sickening they become laughable for a moment. At a recent dinner, one of our elected shared a comment made after a recent vote. The abridged and clean version suggested he should be sodomized with a red-hot poker. Just the other day, it was alleged my own last name was submitted to Urban Dictionary with a definition I truly cannot print here.

Why such comments? Why such disdain? I don’t buy the answer many give: It’s Rockford. This is a national issue woven in every level of our democracy– in nearly every public issue. If this type of bullying – under the guise of communication – were demonstrated in the workplace, it would not be tolerated.

Why then does the majority accept this in online/social media platforms? Nearly 75 percent of American adults have witnessed online harassment, with 40 percent seeing the brunt of that cyberbullying, according to a survey on the subject by the Pew Research Center.

Amongst the many articles on bullying, libel, slander, and defamation I came across, Nastiness, Name-calling & NegativityThe Allegheny College Survey of Civility and Compromise in American Politics, (April 20, 2010) provided insight. According to survey results (1,000 interviewed) a majority blamed the current public negativity on politicians and the media. Really? Are we really victims of democracy? Of politicians and media?

Since many of the comments I am referring to are from the general public, where does personal accountability and self-control play into our actions? Why are we claiming to be “victimized” by our democratic system when we have the ability to change the system through the ballot box? Simply, how have we lost sight of do unto others as you would have them do unto you?

According to Allegheny College survey respondents, the following are off limits: belittling or insulting someone (89 percent), comments about someone’s race or ethnicity (89 percent) and personal attacks on someone you disagree with (87 percent). Despite these high numbers, why do we see such insolent comments? I believe these are the comments of a largely disenfranchised, angered and/or misinformed few. A small group. I believe the larger, silent group are those who align with the data above. I believe neither is OK – the spiteful comments or the silence.

Case in point have been exchanges within Facebook groups like “Neighbors against Gorman,” “Vote No to Rockford Housing Authority” and even “Together Rockford.”

Before I continue, I should state that while I disagree with many positions in these sites, I defend everyone’s right to free speech and informed opinion. I defend the First Amendment but I won’t agree with insolence toward others often spewed in the threads of these and other groups like them. Yes, everyone has the right to freedom of speech and to their own opinion. But how has it become acceptable for adults to abuse that privilege? Few would dare to make these comments in person.

The other day, a member of one of these groups made disparaging remarks against a woman that she tied to skin color. After multiple posts, mostly in support and a few in opposition, she later blamed her behavior on the fear she feels from future actions of moving people to her neighborhood, or so she said.

What are her fears? Many times fear wears the mask of reality with no substance of fact. Would she have been better served addressing her concerns by asking questions that can be answered with facts?

What outcomes are being presented by these comments, which degrade others? Is this an acceptable social model for our children’s behavior? Would we allow children to make similarly derogatory comments about other children? Why have adult standards changed? Are we demonstrating to young children, that this behavior is more than acceptable?

As a public figure, which comes with my role as CEO of the Rockford Housing Authority, I have come to expect, as other public figures do, the personal attacks. What I hope we will not accept are the comments that degrade others simply because they have a difference of opinion. I hope we won’t allow others to be silenced through this name calling and hate driven by misinformation and misunderstanding; intentional or not. This is not debate, nor is it healthy but it is unfortunately prevalent.

As public figures, as community leaders, as humans why do so many shy from being engaged in dialogue where disagreement resides? For our elected, is it because they fear the loss of votes? Is the fear of debate or confrontation stronger than the obligation to do what is right; to do what we took our roles for? I can’t help but think of “shared values” released by Transform Rockford… are we as a community living them?

To my fellow public figures, I have to ask those standing in the shadows, silent, is this living our shared values? Have we not developed our thick skin? To those not currently considered public figures I have to ask the same of you. My mom taught me to stand up for what is right. I suspect yours did too. Don’t let your voice be silenced and don’t mirror the abusive actions of the minority wild voices. Let’s educate ourselves so that knowledge guides healthy discussions and debate and let’s use reason to change the rhetoric. I don’t believe civility is dead but growing it back to normalcy will take commitment. Are you in?