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War of the words: Many Americans believe a lack of civility is a major concern. Can public discourse be saved?

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Online civility

‘YOU should be put down like a rabid animal!”

That’s a quote from Joseph Wildgoose of Smithfield, R.I., which appeared in a police report and resulted in him being hauled before a judge.

It was one of a series of online posts he made as he exchanged opinions on a proposed hunting ordinance in Attleboro with Roxanne Houghton, an animal advocate and former city councilor. She backed a law that would require hunters to get written permission before hunting on private property.

Houghton filed a complaint with police saying she feared for her safety because of the posts.

Wildgoose was charged with threatening to commit a crime, but the case was dismissed last month, although the district attorney has until Oct. 29 to decide if an appeal will be filed.

The dismissal came on a motion by Wildgoose’s lawyer, Daniel M. Rich, who successfully argued there was no “probable cause” for the charges because Wildgoose did not express intent to harm Houghton.

“The operative word in this post is ‘should,” Rich wrote in his motion. “The defendant doesn’t say I am going to put you down, or, I will do something to you, or anything other than expressing his opinion. This is simply an expression of opinion, and is protected by free speech.”

He cited a court case called Commonwealth v. Dibennedetto.

“The alleged victim may not like what was said and she may have felt threatened, but without the intent to carry out the crime, there is no crime committed…,” Rich said.

In his message to Houghton, Wildgoose made reference to domestic assault charges filed against her in 2015. Those charges were eventually dismissed.

Wildgoose called Houghton an “insane liberal,” and said he was innocent of similar behavior.

“I, as a conservative have never done something like you have done,” he said, according to the police report.

In short, he suggested she should be killed because she disagreed with him on hunting issues and because she was once charged in a domestic dispute, a case which was dismissed, as was his.

In his first court appearance, a lawyer representing Wildgoose described the language as “political bantering,” but there was no LOL.

Police and Houghton weren’t laughing either.

Incivility on the rise

The case is a local example of the type of extreme language and rage that often pours forth from cyberspace and other places these days, and a big majority of Americans believe that “a lack of civility” is a major concern.

A Pew Research Poll conducted in 2017 found that 41 percent of Americans “have personally been subjected to harassing behavior online.”

That’s up from 35 percent registered in a similar poll in 2014.

Meanwhile, another 66 percent have witnessed those behaviors aimed at others.

“In some cases, these experiences are limited to behaviors that can be ignored or shrugged off as a nuisance of online life, such as offensive name-calling or efforts to embarrass someone,” the author of the report, Maeve Duggan, said. “But nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) have been subjected to particularly severe forms of harassment online, such as physical threats, harassment over a sustained period, sexual harassment or stalking.”

She said social media platforms are “especially fertile ground for online harassment.”

Another poll this year by Weber Shandwick, in partnership with Powell Tate and KRC Research, shows that 68 percent of Americans believe that “civility in America today is a major problem.”

Last year the number was 69 percent.

Another 25 percent believe it is a “minor” problem, while 7 percent don’t believe it’s a problem at all.

The poll has been done almost every year since 2010, when 65 percent considered incivility a “major problem.” The poll was not conducted in 2015.

In 2013 the percentage dipped to 63 percent, but over time it has generally been on the increase.

And, an overwhelming number of Americans believe incivility, wherever it’s found, has serious consequences.

Almost nine of 10 polled, 89 percent, believe that incivility leads to online bullying and 88 percent believe it leads to harassment (verbal, physical or sexual).

Another 88 percent believe incivility leads to violent behavior and hate crimes.

Eighty-seven percent believe incivility is fertile soil for the growth of intimidation, threats, and intolerance, and creates a feeling of being less safe in public places.

Another 84 percent believe incivility creates discrimination and unfair treatment of certain groups of people and 79 percent believe it results in less community engagement.

And finally, 78 percent believe that incivility results in feelings of isolation and loneliness.

Andy Polansky, CEO of Weber Shandwick, contends there’s a crisis in the way people behave.

“It has never been more important to understand the sources and impact of America’s eroding state of public discourse as Americans continue to view it as an alarming problem,” Polansky said in the report. “From consumers in the marketplace and students in the schools, to employees in the workplace and voters at the polls, few are immune to our country’s civility crisis.”

Like Pew, the Weber Shandwick poll found that social media, which often seems more like antisocial media, is playing a big role in the erosion of common courtesy.

“Contributing heavily to the cause of online incivility is social media, with 63 percent of Americans saying that in their experience, the impact of social media on civility has been more negative than positive,” the report said.

Conversely only 9 percent said it has been more positive than negative.

Bad behavior in Attleboro

None of that surprises Attleboro Police Chief Kyle Heagney, who said complaints about online harassment are on the uptick.

Harassment through cyberspace now occurs more often than face-to-face harassment, but Heagney did not have the exact breakdown available.

So far this year there have been 177 harassment complaints. If the majority are online then that means there have been at least 89 online complaints about harassment, or about one every four days.

Heagney said computer contacts are impersonal and that increases tendencies toward vitriol.

It’s a societal problem that needs attention of some kind, but it won’t come through lawmaking, he said.

“We can never legislate civility; it’s a matter of ethics,” Heagney said.

One sign that civility has deteriorated was the establishment 10 years ago of a new legal remedy by which courts can order harassers to stop their activity, he said.

And those orders are increasing now that we’re engulfed in a cyber world.

“I think it was a response by the Legislature to fill a void when social media came along,” he said.

Heagney said some people confuse free speech with free will.

“Free speech comes with constitutional protections, but free will (acting out) comes with consequences,” he said.

The consequences may be legal, as in the Wildgoose case, or they may be social or economic.

“People are just throwing things out there without thinking about the consequences,” he said.

They can cost a person a job or more.

One prominent example came in 2017 when comedian Kathy Griffin posted a meme online of her holding a representation of the bloody, severed head of President Donald Trump.

She was roundly criticized and lost jobs because of it.

“The consequences may not be immediate, but in months or years it comes back to haunt them,” Heagney said.

Some examples

It doesn’t take effort to find negative comments online. It seems people are lying in wait to lash out at someone, anyone, for anything.

Sometimes they take aim at politicians.

One recent example was a post on The Sun Chronicle’s Facebook page that made an obscene reference concerning Heather Porreca, city council vice president and mayoral candidate.

In another case, a stream of insults were directed at Councilor Laura Dolan when she submitted a proposal to update city ordinances by changing the word “councilman” to “councilor” and “committeeman” to “committee member.”

Dolan’s effort simply reflected the reality of women’s emergence into political life.

However, she was slammed.

One person said, F***** up.

Other comments dripped with sarcasm.

“OK, that’s a biggie. We can all sleep easier tonight. Wonder what the snowflakes next irrelevant problem they will tackle.”

And there was this:

“I feel SO much better now that we are finally getting rid of those horrible words men and women. Great job councilor Dolan. You are a no nonsense bulldog who is really (attacking) the most important issues in our city.”

“Wasted money over a goddamn technicality,” was another comment.

And, “I hope these idiots don’t get paid cuz if they do it’s a slap in the face of every taxpayer.”

In Facebook’s Everything Attleboro group, people apparently get everything in terms of criticism.

One woman, a newcomer to the city, registered disappointment with the “welcome” she got.

“I’ve come on (the group) a couple of times looking for guidance or help just to get sarcasm and rudeness…”

A response was more of the same.

“Grow up and stop acting like a millennial. Everyone is not going to give you good advice and maybe they had a bad day and saw a stupid question and answered sarcastically…”

Another came to her defense, but decided to denigrate the whole city.

“You shouldn’t be surprised with the idiocy here,” one man said. “I have lived in this city for 15 years and am still surprised at the ignorance of people from Attleboro.”

One man posted a complaint about the amount a local plumber charged for a weekend repair job.

The plumber’s wife responded immediately with threats of a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, another poster could not resist ripping the man who made the complaint.

“Anyone who read this knew that it was an old guy... who is clearly very cheap. His complaint is ridiculous and no rational person takes him seriously.”

Another person criticized the plumber’s wife.

“Even though what she said is absurd and ridiculous, the (lawsuit) threat is real, and I despise people who treat the courts like a feelings playground…These people are Fascists who believe that speech that is critical of them should be illegal, and they should be called out whenever spew nonsense like this.”

Former city councilor Jonathan Weydt takes delight in Photoshopping memes of local politicians he opposes.

He frequently targets Porreca.

He has also targeted councilors Jay DiLisio and Kate Jackson.

Weydt appears well within his constitutional rights to ridicule political figures. The memes in some instances are no different than satirical political cartoons that have appeared in newspapers forever.

But he’s clearly touched a nerve.

Porreca said she’s had “conversations” with police about the constant attacks, which usually put her in a photo with wording to make her appear absurd.

Meanwhile, Weydt has a streak of very public incivility running through his history.

For example, there was the time he made an obscene gesture to a fellow councilor on the floor during a debate.

Another time he was charged with assault and battery for throwing a newspaper at a store clerk.

According to police, he became confrontational with an officer who was called to his home to investigate a neighbor’s complaint about Weydt’s dog.

Another time, when he was given a ticket for failing to strap his 2-year-old into a car seat, a police officer said Weydt tried to intimidate him by threatening to call the police chief.

In Washington and beyond

Nationally, President Trump and Democrats are engaged in a never-ending Twitter war.

And sometimes the heat of national politics seeps into the minds of the unbalanced, who threaten harm or actually do harm.

Cesar Sayoc was sent to prison for sending pipe bombs to a number of Democrats.

He was a Trump supporter who began his descent in crime by sending threatening tweets to Democrats.

In one he included a photo of what appeared to be the home of U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., with the comment “see you soon.”

Eric Holder, the attorney general under President Barack Obama, got one that read, “See u soon Tick Tock.”

The pipe bombs had explosives in them, but were non-operational. Sayoc got 20 years.

Then there was the case of James T. Hodgkinson, a supporter of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

He shot and seriously wounded U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana, and a Congressional staffer as Republicans practiced for an annual baseball game with Democrats.

Before the shooting he posted comments such as “It’s Time to Destroy Trump & Co.” and “Republicans are the Taliban of the USA.”

Hodgkinson was shot and killed by Capitol Police who provided security for the practice.

And then there are those who espouse tolerance but show little of it themselves.

Just this week, comedian Ellen DeGeneres was slammed online because she sat next to former President George W. Bush during a Dallas Cowboys football game.

DeGeneres, who’s a lesbian, was viewed as a traitor to liberal causes, including and especially those concerning the LGBTQ community.

“… the irony of the most famous LGBTQ person on the planet yukking it up with one of the most notorious homophobes was painful,” appeared on advocate.com, an LGBTQ online publication.

And there was this on thehumanistreport.com:

“Bush is a homophobe and a mass murderer. Ellen is billionaire trash.”

But DeGeneres took it with grace and gave some advice all should consider:

“Be kind to one another.”

“I’m friends with George Bush,” she said. “In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s ok that we’re all different. When I say, ‘Be kind to one another,’ I don’t mean only the people that think the same way that you do. I mean be kind to everyone — doesn’t matter.”

George W. Rhodes can be reached at 508-236-0432.

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