Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chill Pills All Around, Please

Outbursts and Meltdowns Punctuate the WeekCivility was in particularly short supply this past week. Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina shattered precedent and decorum by yelling “You Lie!” at President Obama during a joint session of Congress. Tennis star Serena Williams threatened a line judge at the U.S. Open with bodily harm following a blown call. Rapper Kanye West grabbed the microphone away from Taylor Swift, trampling what was to be her acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards, to disagree loudly with the judges’ choice. Conservative “Tea Party” events protesting big government saw slogans that included "Unarmed, this time," "Impeach the Muslim Marxist" and "Obama is trying to kill my mama."

It seems that these types of breakdowns in behavior (and good sense) are becoming more strident and are occurring more often. Why?

There is often little, if any, consequence. One reason that we have so much boorish behavior and repeat offenders is that people get away with it. Most people and organizations aren’t willing to set limits. There are too few that will object when “the line” has been crossed.

You can chalk it up to emotion. We’ve heard them all this week: “I’m a very passionate person,” “It was just a spontaneous outburst,” “My emotions took over.” Sorry folks. These are tired and wholly inadequate excuses.

People can blame the “fringe.” Another convenient excuse is to say that the particular incident wasn’t sanctioned. “We can’t be held responsible for the actions of individuals” goes the refrain. Fine. But did anyone speak out? Did anyone say you’re at our event and you’re out of line?

There are some important bottom line considerations in all of this:

Behavior still counts, at least for some. Unless you want to be known as a beast, you are harming your personal brand – or the brand of your organization – by engaging in uncivilized behavior. We all know that part of successful reputation management is setting the proper tone for communication.

Examples are being set. Like it or not, these high profile offenders have fans, they have constituents. They’re role models. Without any impediments, these behaviors are bound to be emulated and propagated.

Bad behavior can incite worse. With each unchecked incident, the line separating good behavior from bad gets shifted. A new, potentially dangerous norm is set. In the most extreme case, it seems that the threshold from outburst to threat or from threat to violence is getting unsettlingly easy to breach.

Manners can trump message. At the core, though, it’s the message – the actual facts of the matter – that get lost. Are we talking about the tennis play between Williams and Clijsters? Swift’s music video? In the case of politics, we’re pulled away from an actual, healthy debate and forced to discuss the spectacle. Moreover, the public is often asked to take a side. The “if you’re not with us you’re against us” mentality still runs deep in enough of the population to threaten compromise or legitimate disagreement. This helps to crush the middle ground and polarize opinion further.

I hope the shrillness and the intolerance can be mitigated. It’s not like this is a new problem, either. It’s been discussed for millennia. Remember “Love thy neighbor as yourself” (the ethic of reciprocity)? It’s time to deliver.
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