Telling stories

The Only Good Words are Harsh Words

Posted by southwrite on June 24, 2014

Image by Flickr user smileham. Creative Commons Noncommercial 2.0 Generic.

Image by Flickr user smileham. Creative Commons Noncommercial 2.0 Generic.

There have been a lot of words – some of them quite extreme – about how rude and uncivil we’ve all become – particularly in our online lives. If you feel like being abused and attacked, then social media is the place to go.

Apparently, most people agree. An annual study by global public relations firm Weber Shandwick found “70 percent of Americans believe incivility has reached crisis proportions.” Quite a few people even think it’s leading to violence as people react to those “fighting words.”

Of course, much of those “fighting words” can be found on the internet, in blogs, Twitter, Facebook and just about everywhere else on the Internet. It’s probably not a surprise that the language and the ideas expressed are extreme – and often highly personal. Dip into the comment section of your local newspaper’s website and you’ll find a virtual cesspool of racist and xenophobic comments, name calling, general stupidity and a lot of poor spelling. Recently, some newspapers have tried to enforce civility with real human monitors or by requiring that people use their real names or sign in with Facebook.

Others, like National Journal have ended comments completely saying they have better things to do – like actual journalism – than policing feuding and name-calling. “For every smart argument, there’s a round of ad hominem attacks—not just fierce partisan feuding, but the worst kind of abusive, racist, and sexist name-calling imaginable,” wrote editor in chief Tim Grieve.

Extreme language isn’t limited just to the benighted readers of online sites. The writers, bloggers and journalists can sometimes be just as bad. A common piece of advice I’ve gotten is that to be an effective blogger, you need sharp opinions. Realizing you don’t have all the answers and seeing both sides of the issue may be realistic, but it won’t get readers. The more sound and fury, the better.

One of the reasons the name calling goes on is that using extreme language attracts readers.

To gain attention, the words you use need to be sharper. It’s not about being clear and concise and presenting fresh ideas, but about giving your readers more of what they already happen to be thinking.

It’s not enough to simply argue a point of view on its merits, but invariability you have to attack your opponents personally. They don’t just disagree with you, they’re evil and stupid. If your favorite political blogger hasn’t compared the other side to Hitler and the Nazi, just wait.

That helps explain why there are so many highly partisan bloggers with large and devoted followings. It’ can be disconcerting sometimes, but we don’t really want to hear anything that challenges our view of ourselves and the world. Fox News viewers don’t switch channels to see how MSNBC commentators are contradicting their conservative favorites. They watch more Fox News. It’s not all that different on the left.

And, it’s not just politics. Many so called religious bloggers, whether Christian or otherwise can get just as vile as any political partisan.

So this is what we have come to in our internet and social media lives. It’s a world that sometimes seems in an arms race of words. The more powerful and explosive they are the better. Words don’t usually end up killing people or maiming innocent bystanders, but they can still hurt. Words can be used to dehumanize. They can destroy a reputation or damage the psyche of the venerable. The more sharp words flying around, the more people tend to avoid getting involved.

And, that can be harmful to us all.

2 Responses to “The Only Good Words are Harsh Words”

  1. Mark Kelmachter said

    Sticks and stones will break your bones. Words will only make you neurotic and psychotic.

  2. social media examiner

    The Only Good Words are Harsh Words « Southwrite

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