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Make America kind again | COMMENTARY

If real life encounters were like social media
(David Horsey)

On Nov. 7, as we heard the news calling the election for Biden-Harris, I saw an image on social media that caught my eye. It was an illustration of the map of the United States, divided into equal blue and red parts — embracing each other. It was signed by Catherine Pao. The caption read, “MAKE AMERICA KIND AGAIN — humanity first, everything else second.” Finally, there was a slogan I could get behind.

Like so many others, I have watched disheartened how political and public discourse in the last several years has abandoned civility and descended into baseness and toxicity, particularly on social media. Toxic discourse has corrupted speech, sown discord and division, and increased polarization to a level that I sincerely hope is not beyond repair.

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A communication researcher by training, I have spent most of this year studying the concept of trust and looking at social media interactions going into the 2020 general election. The Perspective application programming interface I use in my research defines toxicity as “a rude, disrespectful or unreasonable comment that is likely to make you leave a discussion.” The most toxic posts on social media would score high on measures of verbal aggressiveness, an interpersonal communication construct that is defined as “a predisposition to attack the self-concept of others”; it is associated with name-calling, the use of threats, ultimatums, negativity, resentment, and suspicion. It is considered a negative and destructive form of communication.

Toxic communication is not exclusive to one side of the political spectrum. In fact, looking at discussions on Twitter around the use of face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, many of the posts scoring highest in toxicity came from pro-mask wearing, anti-Trump users. The vitriol that President Trump has inspired is undeniable. Even among people who do not tend to use hateful language, the surge in searches of schadenfreude after President Trump tweeted his positive COVID-19 test result on Oct. 2 was documented by Merriam-Webster. Discovering this was akin to catching my reflection in the mirror and seeing at once the ugliness of what we had allowed ourselves to become.

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As we consider how we can heal this deeply divided nation, I have found inspiration in the research on trustworthiness in communication. One of the most often used measures in communication research is the source credibility scale developed by James McCroskey and his colleagues. The scale, which Mr. McCroskey intended as a measure of Aristotle’s ethos, was first introduced in 1966 and went through 33 years of revision and refinement until its last form was published in 1999.

The 1966 scale measured two dimensions — authoritativeness and character. Goodwill, which in the “Nichomachean Ethics” is the necessary precursor to friendship, was finally recognized as an integral dimension of source credibility in 1999. That last version of the scale is Mr. McCroskey’s attempt to parallel all three dimensions of ethos — competence, trustworthiness, and goodwill. Goodwill is defined as caring for others. It is measured by the degree to which one perceives another “cares about me,” “has my interests at heart,” is not “self-centered,” is “concerned with me,” and is “sensitive” and “understanding.” I believe that one way forward to heal our nation is to work on cultivating goodwill in ourselves.

Repairing trust, when trust has been violated, especially toward specific groups of people in our country, whose dignity has been trampled on over and over again, is a non-starter. I have heard from friends who have experienced firsthand the deeply embedded racism in our society that there is no room for trust. Appeals to trust and repairing trust from those who have oppressed and abused them can easily come across as performative and offensive. This reality might seem like a dead end, for if people cannot trust one another, how can we ever come out of our trenches?

Goodwill, on the other hand, does not ask of others to trust us. On the contrary, it makes us trustworthy because it flows from within us to others. It is focused on a transformation of our spirit. It is best rooted in kindness. It looks long-term to who we want to become as people and not in seeking short-term rewards. In its genuine form, it is a form of love shown in deeds, not words. It is a first step to that beloved community. How can we best cultivate it? That is part of the hard work that lies ahead.

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Paola Pascual-Ferrá (ppascualferra@loyola.edu) is an associate professor of communication at Loyola University Maryland.

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