I grew up in Memphis, and traveled north of Tennessee for the first time at 17 years old. When I was 39, I came to New York to attend grad school. My studies only lasted a year, but I stayed and have made my home here in the NY metro area for the last 14 years. I never thought I would live in the Northeast. I picture New York City as it’s often viewed in popular culture: dirty, rude, and in-your-face.
I’m still a Southerner in many ways, and am partial to Southern etiquette. For example, to show disdain, I have heard myself spoon out the classic Southern mix of formal politeness delivered with a whiff of insincerity (“I can’t believe it’s been so long since we spoke; we have to get together again soon”). But I’m in New York now. I’ve been jostled in streets and had people break in line in front of me for years. I’ve repeatedly insulted offenders in my Southern fashion, rarely with either recognition or effect.
I had to learn how to be simply a straightforward jerk when I needed to get a point across. In the process, I also learned how basic social conventions that were planted in me as a youngster were not universal, but absorbed and assumed shared.
So what is quite civil to a New Yorker can be quite offensive to a Memphian. At some level there’s no adjudicating that. People who want to communicate with each other in a small forum simply have to devise rules of behavior that everyone understands and agrees to obey, as a condition of participation.
Offensiveness is hard to judge and frankly not against the rules anyway. Disrespect, contemptuousness, maliciousness: that’s a little clearer.
It’s easier to disrespect an object than a person. It’s easier (and less likely to get called on) labeling a group selfish/evil /disordered/predatory than to address that insult to an individual directly.
In the zeal to slam-dunk and generalize an argument, a description like “this action can be selfish” easily begets “groups who support this action are selfish” which can then beget “everyone who’s a member of that group is selfish” which can finally beget “everyone in that group prides themselves on this selfishness.”
The ease of gliding from one of these steps to the next shows how smoothly demonization can occur. Perceived group homogeneity transforms individual observations into universal personal characteristics. “The truth about (tall people) is that they don’t care about…” or “(dark-haired people) always say x, but they’re really pursuing y”. Insert your favorite demon here.
I want to interrupt that process where I can. I want to expect fellow bloggers and commenters to listen to what I say rather than put me in a group and speak impersonally to that group. That expectation is only realistic if I demonstrate that I will do the same.
If someone tells me that they feel pain from not knowing one of their biological parents and so fear the result of the same for my kids, or they’re against gay marriage because they sense impermanence in gay relationships and are worried about its effect on their straight friends with children, I aspire to treat their words and the feelings behind them as coming from a whole, complete person with a life of experiences. I don’t want to react as if I’ve simply been blasted with a fusillade of threatening beliefs.
In return, when I speak of my life as a father, as one of a committed pair of Dads, as a recipient of egg donation and surrogacy, I expect to be treated without slurs on my character, either directly or through linked articles which deliver the message of demonization from outside the blog.
I won’t continue a discussion where mutual respect is absent, because I do not fight that way. I leave pitched battle to cruder cultural warriors on both sides, ones who are willing and sometimes eager to hitch themselves a ride up on the rage escalator.
As Barry noted, any choice about acceptable behavior on a blog serves to keep out people who we might otherwise want to read. Promoting civility will reduce clicks on the site, as there is probably a competitive advantage to providing a forum for flame wars to people sitting far away from them.
I hope there’s a middle ground here — staying New York real, along with a little Memphis why-don’t-you-sit-down-for-a-bit-and-tell-me-about-it, too.