By Dan Pool, Editor
I had a surprising conversation earlier this year with a woman who said she wanted to comment on some political issues but was afraid to. She held liberal views and was scared that if she aired her opinions in our letters to the editor, she might face real physical persecution.
More surprising to me: this was the second conversation like this I’ve had in the past couple of months. The first was with a senior citizen who wanted to join the chorus calling for increased tax exemptions for seniors. The senior worried that if she publicly expressed her support, the good ol boys/powers that be, might retaliate against her or her property.
I cautiously told both that while I couldn’t guarantee their safety, I strongly doubted anyone would be so enraged by a contrary opinion they would seek the writers out for acts of intimidation or violence.
American history certainly is filled with cases of assault over political issues, a few duels and some heinous murders. But, to my knowledge, we’ve never had any crimes committed against anyone for expressing their views in the Progress.
We have had plenty of spirited debates. I remember one offer in print to take up a collection so a public gadfly could relocate but it was written in jest – I assume. The person never relocated and I don’t think the proverbial hat was ever passed.
To find out whether it was likely someone might face peril over being outspoken, I went to the provocateur supreme, Andy Kippenhan. As Progress readers know, Kippenhan occasionally pens tracts supporting abortion rights, takes church leaders to task as well as extolling climate change efforts. Clearly his views run counter to many in the community and his writing style is fiery.
Andy said he has been told a few times that “he is brave” for so defiantly bucking the mainstream and he has had people express general concern for his safety. But he has never been subject to any intimidation or face-to-face threats over his writings.
As far the Progress itself, we’ve had some pretty mad people call and, rarely, come by. We’ve also had a few people commend us for being brave in publishing something. Usually the belief is that the good ol boys might be out to get us. I, frankly, have never seen evidence of a cabal of rednecks seeking to carry out nefarious deeds for political gain.
We’ve had a few encounters with the commission chair and Jasper mayor where they expressed their displeasure with our coverage (mostly unwarranted in our opinion). But the idea that we might face more than red-faced discussions with Rob Jones, John Weaver or council member Sonny Proctor seems farfetched.
In November of last year, a t-shirt began appearing at some political events with the phrase “Tree, Rope, Journalist, Some assembly required.” Could you imagine if you substituted policeman, teacher, preacher for journalist what the reaction would be? On the national level there is cause for concern.
The times are changing and with scenes like Charlottesville, VA and the ability to enflame passions on social media, perhaps the time will come when we in Pickens County have to worry about violence here. We hope not.
We hope that even if you find ours or someone else’s opinion presented in these pages offensive, you’ll keep the debate respectful or at least not-violent. (We love letters to the editors with strong and well-presented local voices. Remember our 400 words max. length.)
I hate it that (at least) two people have been silenced from the public dialogue over fears of violent reprisals. I tenuously feel their concerns unwarranted. I want to believe that in this county everyone is free to speak their mind without worrying about slashed tires or busted windows.
Despite what is seen in Washington, and big cities and other places, let’s rise above that here with open dialogue and respect for dissenting views.
Quiz: A new restaurant comes to town. You eat there the first or second day they are open. What do you do?
A) Eat your meal and go home.
B) Eat your meal, go home, then discuss the experience with your family.
C) Eat your meal, go home, immediately give the restaurant 2 stars and a scathing review on their Facebook page, citing such “transgressions” as no one to greet you, lettuce issues, servers who didn’t seem to know where to bring food, or napkins not in the right place.
In a civil world answer B would be the correct answer, but in this new Culture of Mean answer C is becoming more and more common (and, incidentally, happened to a restaurant in Jasper last month). While those claims in answer C may very well be true, the impact of such a public bashing does a lot of things – it puts a new restaurant in a guilty-until-proven-innocent mode. Not only do they have to work out the kinks of their first week in business, right out of the gate they’re up against a low online rating (which people no doubt pay attention to and base restaurant choices on).
These days this kind of unfair and cruel online behavior is more the rule than the exception in social forums like Twitter, Facebook, and in chat rooms like Reddit. We’ve all got “that Facebook friend” whose feed is a stream of soapbox rants and negativity, but things can get much more serious than political rants.
Take the unfortunate events with a high school production of “Hunchback of Notre Dame” as a prime example of this new Culture of Mean. According to the NY Times, a white teenager was recently cast in the lead role of Esmeralda, a 15th-century Romanian woman, and a young student activist objected. Ithaca High School eventually cancelled the play because of student pushback, then “an online mob targeted the town with threats and racial epithets. Students received pictures of themselves with swastikas plastered on their faces.”
There’s also the relentless and widespread cyberbullying that has led to teen suicides, and the rampant sexting culture in our schools.
In what world is it okay to send students death threats? Or for students to be so nasty and disrespectful to each other that they want to take their own life? Why do people act so differently online than they do when they’re face-to-face?
In a Psychology Today article, Liraz Margalit, Ph.D calls online interaction “unsynchronized communication.” She says, “the interaction need not be coordinated because the behavior is not directed by the other person’s feedback. People in online interactions are much more casual because they do not have to be attentive to each other’s signals. Verbal and symbolic feedback is not immediate, so there is no need to be constantly aware of the other person's responses.”
Translation: we can be as mean as we want online because we don’t have to see first-hand how it impacts other people.
Margalit goes on to discuss this virtual world with language that conjures up images of the holodeck on Star Trek, a world where, “When playing a computer war game, for example, we can experience excitement, frustration and tension, but we can never be injured.” She says interactions online make social media users “feel connected without the difficulties and complexities involved in face-to-face interactions.”
People are cruel online for all kinds of reasons – it’s safe, it’s a way to get attention or show power they would (or could) never show in real life. But even though these interactions are “virtual,” they aren’t like the holodeck and don’t come without consequences. They have real impacts on real people (the pen is indeed mightier). Let’s remember to be decent human beings, and when we’re online let’s refrain from saying things we wouldn’t say to someone’s face.