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Luskin: Civility On Line

When a recent commentary about the need for intelligent and empathetic discussions about vaccines by Abby Mnookin ended with a plea to “relearn how to talk to each other with compassion and to consider the broader impact of our decisions,” I was both amused and appalled when the thread of comments that followed escalated into an on-line shouting match, complete with snide remarks and name-calling – until VPR closed the thread.

Then, just last week, the on-line news service, V-T Digger, analyzed their on-line comments in response to complaints that the debate was being polarized and monopolized by a few loud voices. They found that out of more than 8,000 comments, 26 percent could be attributed to just twenty individuals, with 3 percent posted by just one. As a result, V-T Digger may set limits on how much and how often readers can comment.

Ideally, on-line comments enable nuanced debate, but the general tenor of our political discourse has become one of for or against, as if any of the difficult issues we face were simple problems with yes or no solutions.

Whether or not to mandate childhood immunizations is one such topic. Gun control, abortion, and health care financing are others.

On-line comment lines miss their potential to be valuable public forums when participants start name-calling, but instead of shutting them down, I like the idea of a word limit, as V-T Digger has proposed. It would force writers to craft their comments with care. And imposing a two-comment per article limit would mimic the rules of debate, where a person can speak only twice.

But I think we also need to step outside the on-line forums, where anonymity makes it easy for people to indulge in incivility. The quality of public debate usually improves when it’s face-to-face. Vermont has a long tradition of this behavior in Town Meeting.

And we have another newer, twenty-year tradition, in our use of restorative justice practices – one of which, called a Circle of Understanding, could be adapted for meaningful public comment on pressing political issues.

In a Circle of Understanding, participants can see one another; everyone has an equal voice; and no one has to moderate, because each person speaks in turn, each answering the same question and taking as much time as necessary.

But what’s most remarkable about this deceptively simple process, is that not only does one person speak at a time, but while that person is speaking – everyone else listens.

Deborah Lee Luskin is a writer, speaker and educator.
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