Civility shouldn't be just for face to face

The Baltimore Sun

BOSTON -- At least no one accused the Rutgers women of being too sensitive or too thin-skinned to take a bit of verbal roughing. At least the corporate honchos at CBS and MSNBC didn't defend their star's rap rhetoric as a rich artistic expression of the raw reality of urban street life. This time, the pampered star didn't rant against the PC Police. Don Imus apologized with something akin to authenticity.

And this time there is a price being paid, in public humiliation and unemployment.

The words that Mr. Imus used to take down the Scarlet Knights from their jump-shot high couldn't have been more precisely aimed. The young women, athletes of the first order, were reduced to "nappy-headed hos." The proud finalists in the championship basketball game were slapped back into their place as women suffering bad hair days and parading whorish morals.

Was it out of character for Mr. Imus? Let's just say that it was not out of the character he plays in the locker room of sports and politics that he has run for decades. It was not a long stretch from the role he describes - defends? - as an equal opportunity offender.

What do we call this? Racism, sexism, abuse, hate-mongering? All of the above and more. But maybe we are finally holding a stop sign in front of the speeding coarseness of the culture.

The Imus flap broke over the airwaves just as another such controversy about personal attacks - about verbal sticks and stones, about codes of conduct and misconduct - was roiling over the Internet.

This time the target was Kathy Sierra, an author little known outside the technorati. After a minor blog dispute last month, someone posted a picture of her with a noose around her neck. There were also digitally altered photos of her strangled with women's panties, along with other threatening postings.

Saying that she felt "horrible" and "frightened," Ms. Sierra canceled appearances and posted her story. "Am I willing to bet with my life that it's just a random Internet jerk? No," she said. And the blogosphere erupted with debate.

Don Imus doesn't have a corner on the market on broadcast misogyny. I give you Howard Stern. Mr. Imus doesn't own the language of hos. Have you heard Ludacris? Nor is Kathy Sierra alone. Her experience echoed among many women whose opinions on, say, politics or even software are routinely countered with attacks on their anatomy.

But if women are the canaries in this cultural mineshaft, the official name over the mineshaft is incivility.

Over the years, some convergence of gangsta rappers and shock jocks and bloggers has given more and more people license to use words that were once washed out with soap, or blocked with bleeps. Sex sells, hate sells and the combination is boffo biz.

Sociologists talk about the disinhibitors, the factors that lower control of behavior. In some places, the controls are permanently off.

P. M. Forni, who co-founded the Civility Project at the Johns Hopkins University, remembers an e-mail exchange on a Web site in which a person wrote baldly, "Civility is for face to face." In the real-life communities of the past, says Mr. Forni, "we acted as though we were trustees of one another's contentment, happiness, well-being. Since you wanted to keep your friends and couldn't replace them, you treated them with moderation. You had a stake in their lives and they in yours." Today? More of our interactions are faceless, anonymous, disconnected.

But at the same time, more people have taken up an arms race against incivility. In the wake of Ms. Sierra's experience, Internet gurus Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales proposed a Blogger Code of Conduct to encourage bloggers to voluntarily ban anonymous and abusive postings. They also introduced a second rule that might well be adopted as the Golden Rule of Civility: "We won't say anything online that we wouldn't say in person."

Civility, it is said, means obeying the unenforceable. But listen to what Heather Zurich, one of the remarkably poised Rutgers players, said: "What hurts the most about this situation is that Mr. Imus knows not one of us personally."

If we cannot rebuild old-time intimate communities, we can push against the anonymity and distance that permit some to dehumanize "others," to hang bloggers in effigy and trash players as hos.

Civility is for face to face? Then let's uphold a face-to-face standard.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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