From time to time, Crotonblog has been attacked by commentators and by a competing chatroom on the grounds that there should be more “civility” in the content of its editorials, contributions and reader comments. Readers only have to look at the content of other media—partisan TV commentators and stations, partisan columnists and newspapers, and, most of all, the ultra-partisan exchanges between competing politicians—to know that civility is a scarce commodity everywhere in the United States, especially in the winner-take-all world of politics.
Mark Twain is reputed to have made the sage observation that “everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” Crotonblog would paraphrase this to, “A few critics complain about a lack of civility on Crotonblog—but nobody seems to be able to define what they mean by civility.” Should Crotonblog be more civil than radio, TV, newspapers and magazines, the Internet, and political discourse? Compared to the Fox TV news channel or the New York Post, we are eminently civil, despite the fact that it is difficult to view kindly those who judge a person’s patriotism on the basis of his willingness to wear a flag pin. Their narrow-minded attitude would make Nikita Khrushev one of the most patriotic leaders of all time. It was he who pioneered the whole flag-pin nonsense.
Where We Stand
First, let us state Crotonblog’s position: We do not censor speech, however derogatory, mean-spirited, or offending it may be. We do attempt to intercept statements that could be libelous, but since the targets of criticism or satire on Crotonblog have been public officials or public figures, and because satire cannot be libelous, we have seen almost nothing that has had to be excluded. We can exert no initial control over comments made through the TypeKey commenting authentication service.
Having encouraged readers to speak their minds freely without let or hindrance, we are made uncomfortable by any suggestion that we should pass judgment on what others may say or write, or the manner in which it is expressed. Regrettably, we have been largely unsuccessful in our campaign to get commentators to restrict their comments to the subject of an article or letter to the editor, and to refrain from attacking one another.
It is our considered feeling that we need open dialogue in this country more than ever, especially after the repeated assaults on freedom of speech by the present administration under the guise of the global war on terrorism. Moreover, we see no advantage to attempting to define what can be said under arbitrary rules for so-called civility when no such rules govern the public discourse being carried on everywhere around us. Wait till you see the excesses of the coming electoral campaign.
A nation in which cartoonists can portray the president with the features of a chimpanzee has nothing to fear from a blog that occasionally pokes fun at baldheads or the morbidly obese, the butt of jokes since time immemorial. Above all else, we refuse to ban the opinions of anyone, self-identified or anonymous, who challenges the actions of anyone in the party in power, local, county, state or federal, merely because those who are the subjects of the critical comment may not like the temper or the tone of what is being said.
And who will be the final arbiter of what can and cannot be said? An old saying has it that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. The French probably have a saying that one man’s viande is another man’s poisson. And, as the classicists say, “One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.” It all boils down to one conclusion: We have neither the obligation nor the desire to tell another human being what they can or cannot think or say. If that makes us Libertarians by default, so be it.
Laying the “Small Village” Fallacy to Rest
The principle argument by those objecting to Crotonblog’s policy of refusing to censor content and style goes like this: “Croton is a small village, and therefore we have an obligation to be more friendly toward one another because Crotonblog’s readers are all close neighbors.” Let us now demolish that fallacy once and for all. Nothing illustrates just how out of touch the complainers are than Crotonblog’s actual readership statistics.
For the 30-day period from April 10 to May 10 of this year, Crotonblog experienced 8,975 visits. In that period there were only three states in the U.S. in which no one logged onto Crotonblog. These were Wyoming and North and South Dakota. But, during that same period, 281 visits originated in New Jersey, 168 in Washington, DC, 127 in California, 120 in Florida, 87 in Pennsylvania, 74 in Virginia, 67 in Connecticut, 56 in both Massachusetts and Texas, to name the rest of the top ten states after New York. Crotonblog also has a wide overseas readership. The following is a tabulation of visits from countries other than the United States: Canada, 64; United Kingdom, 46; Australia, 40; India, 18; Spain, 16; France, 13; Germany, 12; Ireland, 6. So much for the notion that “we’re all just a few neighbors in a small village gossiping over the back fence.” Like it or not, Crotonblog’s readership lives in the global village.
To those who are unhappy with our position on censorship, we say, “Wake up and smell the latte.” We suspect that the complainers are probably of a generation considerably older than Crotonblog’s staff, and thus their attitudes reflect the biases, the complacency and the conservatism of an age group that grew up listening to the radio or watching Sid Caesar and Milton Berle in the early days of TV. Their problem may be that they are not ready to adapt to a fast-moving technology in which the owner of a stolen laptop can photograph the thief and turn the photo over to the police, as happened recently in White Plains.
We would also remind critics and readers alike that Crotonblog is a private enterprise, owing nothing to the public, which grants it no franchise. It is therefore affected with no public interest. It is emphatically the property of its owners, who created it and make it available to the public at no charge and with no obligation on the part of the public to read it.
What Is This Thing Called Civility?
Let us now consider how to define civility. Perhaps we can find clues to civility in other cultures. For example, one might think that Britain is home to one of the most civil societies on this planet. The British stand patiently in orderly lines while waiting for a bus. Yet one only has to read British newspapers to see the prying, rowdy, salacious free-for-all that is the British press.
The French, too, are noted for their politeness, so much so that their word for it, politesse, has worked its way into the English language. The French language itself is full of s’il vous plaits, je vous en pries and pardons. It’s a different world, however, once they get behind the wheel of an automobile. When a fender-bender occurs, there is much insulting name-calling, arm waving and gesticulating with obscene finger gestures—but physical contact is never made and a blow is never struck. In that sense, one might say that the whole post-accident encounter is conducted with civility.
Then there is Japanese society, another contender for the civility title. So much bowing takes place throughout Japan in the course of an ordinary day that the expression “Oh, my aching back” must surely have originated there. The idea of touching another person is anathema in Japan, where even the social gesture of shaking hands is frowned upon. Yet one does not board a Tokyo subway train by stepping into it; one is literally pushed on board by white-gloved uniformed platform guards whose instructions are to unceremoniously cram as many as possible on each train. Groping of female passengers has become so common that authorities have added female-only subway cars.
Japanese civility (or the lack thereof) was memorialized in a 1938 poem entitled “The Japanese.” By then, the Japanese had already invaded and annexed Manchuria and had just completed the destruction of Nanking, the Chinese capital, where hundreds of thousands were brutally raped and murdered. Here’s what American poet Ogden Nash had to say about Japanese civility:
What do critics mean when they call for more civility? Let’s look at some definitions of the word. “The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language” defines it as: (1) courteous behavior, politeness. (2) a courteous act or utterance. Not too much help there. How can one courteously say that Treasurer Abe Zambrano, now bucking for Village Manager after only four years as Village Treasurer, was stupid and unprofessional for sending out phony water bills?
Let’s look at what the thesaurus offers as synonyms for civility: (1) a courteous act or courteous acts that contribute to smoothness and ease in dealings and social relationships, amenity (used in plural), courtesy, pleasantry, politeness, propriety (used in plural). (2) well-mannered behavior toward others: courteousness, courtesy, genteelness, gentility, mannerliness, politeness, politesse. Still not much guidance there if you’re saying that trustee candidate Joe Streany was ethically challenged, ignorant of anti-discrimination laws and no friend of the environment.
Let’s look at the adjective courteous that keeps popping up: (1) full of polite concern for the well being of others: attentive, considerate, gallant, polite, solicitous, thoughtful. (2) characterized by good manners: civil, genteel, mannerly, polite, well-bred, well-mannered. We thought we were being well mannered when we pointed out that Joann Minett’s sole qualification to be a trustee was her semimonthly accusatory rant before the village board.
And now, let’s consider the noun courtesy: (1a) polite behavior. (1b) a polite gesture or remark. (2a) consent or agreement in spite of fact, indulgence: They call this pond a lake by courtesy only. (2b) willingness or generosity in providing something needed: free advertising through the courtesy of the local newspaper. And then there’s courtesy, the adjective: (1) given or done as a polite gesture: paid a courtesy visit to the new neighbors. (2) free of charge: courtesy tickets for the reporters. Please forgive us for saying so, but spending millions to raise the level of the parking lot makes as much sense as trying to raise the H.M.S. Titanic from its grave on the bed of the North Atlantic.
Finally, here’s what the thesaurus offers as synonyms for courtesy: (1) a courteous act or acts that contribute to smoothness and ease in dealings and social relationships, amenity (used in plural), civility, pleasantry, politeness, propriety (used in plural). (2) an act requiring special generosity: beau geste, compliment, favor. (3) well-mannered behavior toward others: civility, courteousness, genteelness, gentility, mannerliness, politeness, politesse. May we be excused for saying so, but we still think injecting chemical additives into Croton’s award-winning water supply is a dumb idea when the proper remedy would be to replace the aging pipes.
We have purposely taken this ramble through dictionary and thesaurus only to show the wide range of tepid meanings encompassed by the word civility and its equivalents. We now issue a challenge to unhappy readers and particularly to our permanently disgruntled critics who sound off so vociferously about Crotonblog on the chatroom of The North County News. Some NCN critics bandy about wholly inappropriate phrases like “You can’t shout ‘Fire’ in a crowded theater.”
So, we ask our critics so willing to cast the first stone, especially those who have been so vocally and uncivilly critical of us on the NCN chatroom, to answer this question: Which of the above definitions are they demanding we adopt as a standard when they take Crotonblog and its contributors and commentators to task for lack of civility? Here’s their chance to tell us what their idea of civility is—but please stop with the delusory “we live in a tightly knit small village” argument. In light of our broad circulation to every continent on this planet, it just isn’t so.
Responders can communicate their responses to us as a letter to the editor at Crotonblog.com, or as a comment sent through TypeKey. They can use their own names or don the cloak of anonymity, a garment we encourage readers to adopt to prevent identity theft.
As the parson says at the beginning of the marriage ceremony to any in the assemblage who might know of a reason why the marriage should not take place, “Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”