Masthead CMC Magazine July 1, 1995 / Page 10


Comment on the Civility Debate

by S. Michael Halloran (

Seven years ago Kathleen Hall Jamieson published a widely- read analysis of how political discourse has been transformed in the context of radio and television (Eloquence in an Electronic Age). In a pair of aptly-chosen metaphors, she contrasted the flame of oratory in the old style with the fireside chat invented by our first great media politician, Franklin Roosevelt. Oratory of the kind that has been displaced by electronic media was, according to Jamieson, impassioned, argumentative, and macho; it cut issues sharply, relied on chains of reasoning that gave a semblance if not always the full actuality of logical coherence, and stirred powerful emotions that gave rise to the flame metaphors often used to characterize it. It was practiced and theorized by males who eschewed any marks of effeminacy in style and deplored any women who attempted to become orators. The eloquence of the electronic age, as developed by Roosevelt in the medium of radio and advanced by Ronald Reagan on TV, is on Jamieson's analysis less argumentative, more genial, indirect, and conversational. It relies heavily on storytelling and the strategic display of the speaker's personal feelings and experience. With the rise of television it leans heavily toward emphasis on the visual and tends to relegate words to the status of captions for pictures. And while women continue to be marginal in the new oratorical forum, its characteristic style is, somewhat paradoxically and very untraditionally, effeminate.

The seven years since the publication of Jamieson's study have been fat ones for innovators in the electronic media, and the current debate over civility in public discourse brings into stark focus some of the changes. Radio, which Jamieson could plausibly treat as a primitive form made obsolete by the development of TV, has been reinvented as a viable medium distinct in both style and ideology from network television. Computer-mediated communication via commercial online services and the Internet has emerged as a major new medium. And in both cases the fire metaphors used by Jamieson to highlight contrasts between traditional oratory and the then-current electronic eloquence are being permuted in ways that suggest substantial further rhetorical transformations since 1988. Critics of the post-TV electronic media speak of inflamatory talk that pours gasoline on a fire, while the talk-show and Internet flamers point toward a blazing compound in Waco and augment the firepower in their armories, both literal and figurative. The genteel and cozy fireside of Roosevelt and Reagan threatens to become a raging inferno.

Critiques of talk-radio and Internet discourse as lacking in civility may, like various earlier critiques of the decline of public discourse (including one of my own), suffer from nostalgia for a golden age that never was. I emphasize the subjunctive "may" here. Yes, I recognize that people in all times and places are inclined to look wistfully over their shoulders toward a past that seems better in retrospect that it ever was in fact, but that doesn't mean that the past was always, and in all ways, worse than the present. In this case I'm inclined to side with those who believe that public discourse has lost a quality of restraint and charitableness that can be called civility, a term that underscores the importance of this quality in maintaining a sane and satisfying civic life. And regardless of whether the rhetoric(s) of talk-radio and the Internet are any less civil than the public discourses of earlier times, I believe these new media are less civil than they ought to be. There's a line in one of Samuel Beckett's plays that goes, "You weep and weep so as to keep from laughing, and sooner or later you begin to grieve." The quality of our discourse is important because it predisposes us to think, feel, and act in particular ways.

It's tempting -- and perhaps not altogether wrong -- to suggest that in the media of talk-radio and the Internet, rhetoric simply reverts to its pre-FDR identity: impassioned, macho, and if not strictly-speaking argumentative, certainly quarrelsome in the extreme. But the new electronic rhetorics also exhibit features associated by Jamieson with the electronic eloquence of 1988. They rely heavily on story-telling and the strategic display of personal experience. And they are inclined to substitute sound- bites for carefully developed arguments.

One feature that distinguishes the new electronic media from both traditional oratory and the electronic media as Jamieson understood them is their interactivity. Talk-radio allows at least some people to become talkers as well as listeners, and CMC extends further opportunities for something like dialogue. I want to suggest here a couple of ways in which the interactivity of the new electronic media may be related to the incivility that seems to characterize the discourse they support, and once again I emphasize the subjunctive "may."

To the extent that there is a problem of incivility in Internet discourse, it may be a sign of frustration produced by a medium that, in its current state of development, invites us to be rhetors and denies us the possibility of being adequate rhetors. Raised in Jamieson's electronic age, we are schooled in the rhetoric of video; we think of an adequate rhetor as one who relies on a sophisticated command of visual imagery. Commercial service interfaces and World Wide Web home pages further reinforce the idea that rhetoric must be visually slick, yet the ordinary participant in online chat is effectively limited to words and emoticons. Internet flamers may simply be frustrated by their situation, and their frustration may express itself in the creation and excoriation of villains. If this is an at least partial explanation for the incivility of the new media, then it may be a phase that will pass as CMC technology advances and places a more effective command of visual imagery at the disposal of users.

Another possibly relevant feature of the new interactive media is what literary critic Northrup Frye might call the radical of participation -- the idealized situation of the audience-participant. Both Roosevelt and Reagan addressed themselves to families gathered in their living rooms, to people who were physically present to and socially engaged with others whose opinions mattered to them. Transporting the audience from a crowded public auditorium to a cozy living room was a significant transforming factor in the move from platform oratory to fireside chat, but the two had in common the audience constraints that would inevitably flow from their being located in a place that presumes a degree of sociality. In contrast, talk-radio hosts seem to address themselves to individuals isolated in their cars or apartments, and CMC users tend to focus narrowly on their screens and keyboards regardless of their physical proximity to others. Even when they are physically present to others, they are presumed by the discourse to be socially disengaged, in a moral sense alone. This radical of presentation may thus free users from the constraints that would apply to the audiences of either traditional platform oratory or a Roosevelt-Reagan style chat.

To put a somewhat sharper point on it, talk-radio and Internet discourse may not be much like public discourse as we've traditionally understood it, but may instead be more like private discourse or even uncensored thought and feeling overheard. In the virtual spaces of the airwaves and the Internet, I can become a transparent ego. The rantings of flamers on talk-radio and the Internet may be the spontaneous overflow of strong feelings, untempered by either the tranquility of recollection or the constraints of sociality. By placing people where they are both morally alone and audible to thousands, these media may be releasing the dark feelings we once learned to conceal from all but our closest intimates, even from ourselves.

For example, my radio happens to be tuned to a highly-rated local talk-show on which the Limbaugh-wannabe host is wondering aloud about the national origins of a recent caller with a slight accent, whom he dubs "Green-Card Herman." I suppose most of us are subject to twinges of xenophobia, but what are we to think of a medium in which a man is paid to speak such feelings aloud without a hint of irony or embarrassment? Now the host announces with relish that he loves getting hate-mail on the Internet and moves on to a screaming rant about a "pinhead" who has disagreed with him. He thrives on conflict, the louder the better, but avoids anything like a reasoned argument. My guess is that the apparent spontaneity with which he raves is in fact a carefully cultivated art, and my pessimistic prediction is that his art will thrive and eventually bring him to national prominence. And in the wake of his success he will leave a widening circle of fans schooled in his art of harrangue and invective, of giving proud and high-volume vent to any momentary impulse, however ugly or irrational.

Perhaps what I'm worrying about is nothing more than the ethos of the curmudgeon, which as rant-artists from Demosthenes to H.L. Mencken have shown does not require advanced technology for its practice. And perhaps it will die of its own poison, like the rhetorics of such earlier media harranguers as Father Caughlin and Senator McCarthy. I hope so. But my suspicion is that we are witnessing something genuinely new -- not merely a decline of civility, but an ecstatic flight from it. The question is, can we have civilization without civility? [CMC TOC]


S. Michael Halloran is a Professor of Rhetorical Theory and Communication in the Department of Language, Literature, & Communication at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he received his Ph.D. some years ago. His dissertation was a study of the theater of the absurd, a subject on which he has published nothing since receiving his degree, though he did spend several years in academic administration.

Copyright © 1995 by S. Michael Halloran. All Rights Reserved.

This Issue / Index / CMC Studies Center / Contact Us