British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once observed: “The veneer of civilization is very thin.’’
Oddly, she said this before social media was invented.
Today that veneer of civilization is often stripped away completely, as anyone with a Twitter account knows all too well.
Now, to be fair (and balanced), Thatcher was referring to the rioting that broke out in the London neighborhood of Brixton in 1981. There’s a big difference between riotous behavior online and an actual riot—in that case one in which more than 300 people were injured. Still, it seems a fair observation: Why do some people behave so badly on social media?
The prompt for that question could be what President Trump tweets on almost a daily basis—insults and innuendos and all manner of incorrect statements. Or it could be Gail Gordon Donegan, a Democratic activist from Alexandria who Gov. Ralph Northam recently appointed to the Virginia Council of Women (and who later resigned). Before 2008, this would have been a routine appointment that would have generated no controversy—or even any attention whatsoever.
Why 2008? Because that’s the year Donegan opened a Twitter account under the name “Satirical Alexandria.” Describing herself as “snarky Virginia Dem; Local Political Gadfly,” she has proceeded to tweet what the Richmond Times-Dispatch describes as “profane and caustic social media posts.” Or, to be a bit more precise, Donegan has what the Times-Dispatch describes as “a history of making derogatory attacks on Twitter and making jokes about Catholics and Catholic priests and pedophilia.”
Normally, this is the point where we would produce evidence of such tweets. However, many of these tweets are so full of bad words that it seems indecent even to dash them out. Here’s the best we can do: She once tweeted “[Expletive] you” to U.S. Sen. Mark Warner—a fellow Democrat. She once tweeted: “Bernie Sanders and his [expletive] followers need to [expletive] the [expletive] off.” She once tweeted to the editor of Vanity Fair: “[Expletive] off, eat [expletive] and crawl back to hell.” She once tweeted to the prominent African-American author Cornell West: [Expletive] off and die.” She’s managed tweets of equally high-minded rhetoric about Republicans, too.
Donegan energetically defends her foul language: “Psychological studies show that people who swear make better friends,” she has said. “And they’re smarter.”
Perhaps. But is this really the way we want people to behave in a public forum? Call us prudish if you want—or call us [expletive] if you must—but we think the answer is “no.” Donegan may think this language makes her look, well, we don’t know. Hip? Honest? We’d supply a very different set of words—juvenile is the one that comes most readily to mind except even most juveniles behave a lot better. Ultimately, the point isn’t what Donegan thinks of her language or even what we think. It’s this: Does any of this help society?
To say that we live in a polarizing time is a cliché. To say that social media has a corrosive effect on our civil discourse is also a cliché. Both, though, are true. And it’s precisely this sort of behavior on social media that is making things worse, not better. As an active participant in the political process, Donegan ought to feel a responsibility to raise the level of public discourse, not lower it. Instead, she has become part of the problem. Perhaps a very small part of the problem, given how many people are doing the same thing on social media, but part of the problem nonetheless. Her resignation this week spares Virginia the embarrassment of her representing the state but doesn’t mitigate the essential problem.
You’ll notice we haven’t said anything yet about Donegan’s anti-Catholic tweets. It’s time now for us to address those, because those come under a different heading than her insistence on using foul language as part of political rhetoric. Her anti-Catholic tweets would be a problem even if she never typed out a four-letter word on Twitter. We’ll only cite one of them here. Language-wise, it’s one of the milder things she’s tweeted but it’s telling in other ways: “Go tell a Catholic they have dirt on their forehead. #waystooffend.” Most have focused on the sentence. We’re focused on the hashtag. Donegan apparently thinks this is funny. Humor, like beauty, is always in the eyes of the beholder. But by the hashtag, Donegan clearly knows this is offensive. To us, that raises this question: Why would she want to offend someone?
Donegan has strong views about the Catholic Church. OK, so? Lots of people have strong views on certain subjects but don’t go around offending people. We ask again: Why would she go out of their way to offend someone? And then, effectively, brag about it?
Donegan is hardly alone. We live in an era when somehow it’s become acceptable to say in public all sorts of horrible things—about other people, other religions, other ethnicities, other all manner of things. Many times it seems like some people delight in saying or doing things they know will be offensive. Everyone who waves a Confederate flag knows that’s offensive to African Americans—and lots of white people, too. Yet they delight in doing it anyway. Why? This week, the always-controversial U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, “joked” that Muslims should be forced to eat pork. Why? Why?? None of this is funny or helpful. If anything, it only reveals the insecurities of those who feel compelled to say such things. They are, at heart, bullies.
We often find ourselves pointing out to certain xenophobes on the right that we live in a big, complicated, diverse society—and we all need to figure out how to live together. Today, we find ourselves pointing out the same thing to Donegan on the left. Bad behavior knows no ideology, but it increasingly seems to have a handle online.
Now, Donegan and all these other people have a perfect right under the Constitution to say what they wish. But just because you have a right to do something doesn’t mean it’s wise to do so. Here’s perhaps a standard to keep in mind. It’s the “four-way test of the things we think, say or do” that members of the Rotary Club recite at each meeting: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build good will and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
Yes, we realize it’s very old-fashioned to cite the Rotary Club. On the other hand, the Rotary Club is on Twitter and seems to get along quite fine without mocking or insulting anyone. Why can’t others?