Many of you have experienced sibling rivalry. So have I. As the youngest of three children, I was always the “little brother” even though I ended up as the tallest (although my brother still disputes that).
He was nine years older, however, so he was out of college by the time we could have had a fair fight.
Not so with my sister, who had me beat by 31 months. For a time, we argued about everything, from infringing on one another’s territory in the back seat to who got to wash or dry the dishes.
Once, when I was about 10 or 12, I thought she was taking too long to read the funnies. We got in an argument over it, I snatched them and she, with longer fingernails, grabbed my arm, scratching it. To gain my revenge, I decided to paint the scratches with Mercurochrome.
Mercurochrome was my favorite antiseptic because it didn’t sting like rubbing alcohol or iodine. However, it was bright red in color and stained the skin, so when one dabbed it on, it left a mark that took several days to wash off.
I applied it liberally, all over my arm with the idea being my friends would ask me what happened, expecting me to say I fell off my bike or something similar, but then I would say, “Aw, my sister clawed me,” and then roll my eyes, being the macho guy I thought I was. It’s embarrassing to reflect back on it as an adult, but it made perfect sense as a 10-year-old.
Civilizing people comes hard, and takes training preferably — but sometimes bad experience — to learn how to behave.
I got my comeuppance when, in 1998, the federal government outlawed the sale of Mercurochrome. After all, it includes mercury. If I die of cancer at some future date, it may be because of the mercury I leached into my skin as a child for one of the lowest of reasons — seeking revenge.
Our poor mother, having to deal with our nonsense, often said, “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”
The problem with words, however, is that, uttered in an uncivilized manner, they can and do incite people to use sticks and stones.
This is a long way around to a subject that has been bothering me ever since the advent of the Internet.
Although most people under 30 may not understand what I am talking about, it seems obvious to me and most Baby Boomers that there has been a loss of civility in our public discourse. At one time newspapers were the primary gatekeepers of information. As such, when people write letters to the editor, editors long ago determined that the letters must be signed. People who put their names behind what they say tend to be more responsible about it, thinking it through, realizing that what is said is as much a reflection on the author as it is on the subject.
Then, along came the Internet, and it was, and in many ways still is, the wild, wild West. Editors were told that the old ways were out, that if somebody wanted to post an anonymous opinion to your Web site, that was OK. It encouraged more free flowing discussions. No one had to be afraid of repercussions for what they said because nobody knew who said it.
From the newspapers’ point of view, it got even better when the courts ruled that we can’t be expected to prevent people from libeling one another on our Web site.
So what was the result?
As I see it, the level of discourse has made a steady descent into the basement. I have allowed to be posted on our Web site, and I see it on many other Web sites as well, the most mean, hurtful and despicable comments imaginable.
In some cases, we have had the same person (or at least the same computer) carrying on a conversation with itself on our Web site using two different pseudonyms. The schizophrenia was not obvious, but the viciousness was.
My attitude: Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.
It doesn’t make any difference if the Republicans or the Democrats, for example, are correct if, in the end, we treat each other with such disrespect that we can’t accomplish anything as a society. Maybe words don’t break bones, but who wants to live in a community where the people insult each other so freely?
As your editor, I’ve tried to put rules in place to encourage at least a minimum level of civility on letters to the editor, but I also recognize that we have a double standard with no holds barred on our Web page.
Well, that’s about to change.
In the next few days, we are making a change on our Web site. You can make comments, same as before, but they will be under the same name you use on Facebook. Commenters who already have Facebook pages will find it almost seamless. They won’t have to go to Facebook or leave the mcrecord.com Web site to comment. In fact, it will make it easy for them to post any comment to their Facebook page so that their friends can see what they wrote. It will also make it easier to post a link to one of our stories on their Facebook page so their friends can see it.
If you don’t have a Facebook page, you will no longer be able to comment on the Record’s Web site, but it’s not a big deal to set one up. Over 800 million people already have. And this way, while it’s not impossible to hide behind a false front, visitors to the Record’s Web site will usually know who is saying what.
We fully expect that the anonymous insulters will be upset by this change. It may well reduce the number of comments on our articles. However, if it raises the level of discourse, it’s worth it. I look at it as another small step toward restoring civility to our public discussions.
Tom West is the editor and general manager of the Record. He may be reached at (320) 632-2345 or by e-mail at [email protected].