Saturday, September 18, 2010

Dialogue and civility

Yet another in what is becoming a series of posts about civility.  Earlier this week KSL, one of the state's major news outlets (and an outlet owned by the LDS Church) shut down the comments section of its website.  The reason? "We recognize that our comment boards do not meet our own standards or the expectation of many of our users," (according to a statement posted on the website and cited in this article).

As a Mormon I can say that I am not surprised at this step--after all, my church is not just uncomfortable with open discussion of major religious issues in church, but deeply committed to politeness, favoring it over open-ness or honesty. And as an occasional reader of public fora on news sites I can say that I have almost never read a comment that added to the discussion of the topic.

Still, there is much to be concerned about in this step.  At least some supporters of democracy argue that communities need public spaces, or third places, where they can talk, discuss, debate, and disagree about major issues prior to making a decision or taking political action on an issue. (My favorite book on this topic is Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites--a must-read, and a reminder of how much we lost when he died 15 years ago.) 

The big point in the work of third place theorists is that democracy needs an infrastructure that is related to but separate from the decision-making apparatus.  In the past that infrastructure has been physical--pubs, churches, parks, social clubs, etc.)  Today a good chunk of that infrastructure is online.

So when shuts down is public fora it is doing two things--first striking a blow for civility by reducing the overall amount of bile that spills out online.  But second it is undermining a piece of the infrastructure that makes democracy possible--hardly a good things for a news outlet (or a church) to do.

It is worth noting in conclusion that colleges and universities could do a lot more than they do in this area.  Many institutions of higher education have almost no real public space, or third places.  Instead they give over all their space either to private uses (offices), or directed uses (classrooms).  What is more, the opportunities for open discussion are severely limited.  Most faculty meetings, for example, are devoted to two things--passing along information in a passive manner, and making decisions on proposals.  We would be well-served to have more open fora to lay the groundwork for better decisions and, therefore, more civilized outcomes to our work.

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