Cell Phones are Killing Off Conversation–and Civility

Posted on July 13, 2017


What has happened to civility? By “civility” I mean several things:
‒ politeness;
‒ the ability to listen to a contradictory opinion without knocking someone unconscious with your riot baton because they don’t agree with you;
‒ the simple human activity of entertaining different points of view from your own as possibly being valid;
‒ the absence of crudity and insult in your conversations;
‒ the ability to listen to correction;
‒ the ability to hear something about yourself without being offended.
‒ And, finally, the ability to keep your mouth shut and listen to others. Or as Scripture put it more cogently, “Even fools are thought wise when they keep silent; with their mouths shut, they seem intelligent.” (Proverbs 17:28, New Living Translation)

There are two issues here. One, why have we become so violent and insulting in our relations with others? And, two, what do we do about it?

Everyone today seems to take offense at what others say or do.

If you are black, Hispanic, Muslim, Indian or anybody other than a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), then I can offend you just by mentioning your religious, racial, ethnic, national, political, or sexual state of being or preference.

Intolerance is the calling card of the easily offended. Everyone is out to get you or persecute you, and you usually are not interested in what the other side may have to say. You have already determined the truth, and you are offended by the racists, nationalists, capitalists, Nazis, Communists, imperialists, male chauvinists, and waspish feminists inhabiting or crossing through your space.

We have, to summarize, apparently lost our ability to be civil to and with each other.

How did this collapse of civility come about? The best answer I have come up with is by listening a lot to people in places like the dog park at Munny Sokol Park, waiting at car dealers, anywhere I can strike up a conversation and be, well, civil.

And the answer is attributed to the collapse of conversation as we know it. No one talks to each other. Everyone texts. People sitting in restaurants are all texting. I don’t know, they may be texting to the person sitting across the table.

Everyone has to make eye contact if they talk face to face, and so pick up all the obvious and subtle signals of where a conversation is going. The immediacy and meaning of human contact is lost in an electronic transmission.

You can insult, offend, swear, praise, extol, be crude and even visually explicit (sexting?) and not be worried about a human reaction. An invisible electronic barrier allows you to say and do things you would never do in person.
This explanation makes sense to me.

The information technology revolution has seriously diminished our ability to speak and act civilly. And you can throw in email, social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.), and any other electronic bric-a-brac that puts you at a distance from a human relationship.

So, what can we do about it?

I’ve read that at some schools and colleges, they have “text free days,” where you cannot communicate with cellphones for a certain number of days. There are scores of articles online by people who decided to go cold turkey, with titles like “How to Survive Without a Cell Phone: 9 Steps (with Pictures),” “I lived without a cell phone for 135 days,” and “7 things I learnt living without a cell phone.”

I felt I was eavesdropping into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or a drug recovery workshop.

CNN asked one of its contributors, Dean Obeidallah, a comedian, to go for a day without his cell phone. It’s a riot. He starts out feeling liberated, walking the streets of New York and actually seeing people, but ends up like a drug addict looking for a hit in an Internet Café, bereft of his system of support and comfort.

He remembered America B.C. (before cellphones) nostalgically, as a simpler time — life with people, not earbuds and cell phones.

Television transformed life in the home, but, somehow, we got past it. Maybe we need rules for cellphone addicts. Treat it as any other addiction.

I’m thinking of giving up my cellphone for 24 hours. But what if I need to call 911 because my house is on fire? I’m going to need to plan this period of deprivation carefully, so nothing important might coincide.

Maybe I’ll just put it on vibrate.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday, June 11, 2017 as Cell Phones are Killing Off Colnversation–and Civility

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