Is rude the new normal?

Today in Intro to Media, we’re going to talk about civility, the Internet and polarization of views.
A 2013 survey found that “that 70 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached crisis proportions…dealing with incivility has become a way of life for many. Additionally, 81 percent of Americans think that incivility is leading to an increase in violence.”

Global public relations firm Weber Shandwick and public affairs firm Powell Tate conducted the survey in partnership with KRC Research. It found that Americans encounter incivility 2.4 times per day on average, and 43 percent expect to experience incivility sometime within the next 24 hours. Civility in America: A Nationwide Survey reported:

Politicians, America’s youth, the media and the Internet are assigned most responsibility for the problem. Most notably, for the first time since the survey began in 2010, the Internet/social media has risen into the top ranks of perceived causes of incivility. Of those who expect civility to worsen in the next few years, 34 percent blame Twitter – a significant rise from 2012.

Any thoughts on that? Is it true that rude behavior is the new normal in America?

A few examples of incivility include:

  • Talking on a cell phone while talking to someone else in person
  • Cursing
  • Cyberbullying

But that’s just the start of it. The survey said American politics and social media is teeming with incivility.


Geoff Livingston

Author Geoff Livingston says polarization of views is part of the problem. In an article entitled, “Can we handle technology responsibly?” he writes:

Just consider the mounting climate crisis and our unwillingness to address the matter. In the United States, we are simply unwilling to address this issue on a national policy level. We are gridlocked with partisan politics…

Frankly, I don’t think we will do anything about the increasing environmental crisis until we experience a man-made ecothreat to humanity that causes significant death counts in the hundreds of thousands or worse.

Social media provides another example. Many of us hoped conversations would elevate society. Though we have seen great societal good happen through conversational media, we have also witnessed a marked drop in civility, polarization of views, and the rise of a Grumpy Cat culture where pet pics rule supreme.

The truth? Social has just provided a very public mirror of where we are as a species. We hate, we posture, we seek attention, we love, we heal, we grow.

I believe that when the ugly side of social gets to be too much, society as a whole will evolve. Social norms will change, and what is commonly accepted will change for the better. Progress will occur.


Cass Sunstein

Legal scholar Cass Sunstein has written extensively on polarization of views. Civil Politics summarized Sunstein’s book, “Going to Extremes: How Like Minds Unite and Divide.” Here’s how the website described polarization of views:

Generally, when people find themselves in groups of like-minded others, they tend to become more extreme in the views which they share with those around them. Simple laboratory experiments have shown that people arbitrarily assigned to sit with people they think share their views exhibit this polarization effect, where they become more extreme in their views on whatever it is that researchers tell them they share in common.

Civil Politics continues:

Sunstein argues that the way people within groups obtain and share information is one of the essential ingredients for polarization, and likely extremism, too. Generally, what people know is already skewed in a certain direction and when they speak with each other they basically confirm what each of them already believes. Consider Marc Sageman’s research on the radicalization process for terrorists. He finds that, “a group of guys in an echo chamber communicate with each other spiraling to a further extreme until they are moved to join a terrorist group.” Many members of terrorist organizations explain that they joined because of political goals that they have and believe they can best achieve through joining these organizations.

In obtaining information through social networks that are ideologically homogeneous, people tend to assimilate information that leads them to a desirable conclusion. For example, one Pew Poll found that while 93% of Americans believe that Arab terrorists perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, only 11% of Kuwaitis believe this. One explanation is that people in Kuwait are isolated from the United States, receive a particular source of information, and are motivated to view the “enemies of America” as very distinct from themselves.


Graphics taken from Civility in America survey

A similar pattern can be seen in politics in America. People tend to view websites, read newspapers and blogs, listen to radio shows, and watch television programs that support their pre-existing views.

Social psychological research shows that people are biased in how they assimilate information. When presented with the same set of facts and each side’s argument in favor of or against capital punishment, the participants tended to only believe the facts that supported their views and while they tended to discredit the facts supporting the other views. Often, when encountering information challenging pre-existing beliefs, people respond by labeling the uncongenial points as silly or stupid, and derogate the people espousing those points. This can be viewed as “tribalism,” where people rally to defend their tribe and attack other tribes.

Sunstein also notes that political extremists are typically far from irrational. Rather, they tend to have a very narrow set of knowledge on an issue, and what they know supports their extremism. It’s also important to recognize that extremism is not necessarily bad. In fact, extremism is sometimes defensible and right (e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela).

Such groups as the Village Square are fighting to boost civility in American society. The group’s website states:

The Village Square is a non-partisan public educational forum on matters of local, state and national importance. We are dedicated to maintaining factual accuracy in civic and political debate by growing civil dialog on divisive issues, and recalling the history and principles at the foundation of our democracy.

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