It’s not just an issue being raised in Wisconsin. There’s concern across the country.
I traveled through North Carolina and Virginia, both in areas of deep blue and crimson red, and it was clear neither side trusted the other very much. For the conservatives, the country had changed beyond their imagining; not just civil rights but gay rights (a contentious referendum recently banned gay marriage in North Carolina), and new ethnic groups that seemed foreign–the South Asians who all of a sudden seemed to run half the convenience stores, the Latinos who didn’t seem to want to speak English. Why, even the President of the United States was something strange, neither black nor white. For liberals, it was all about intolerance. You couldn’t have a half-decent conversation with these Tea Party people, they said.
Incivility seems to me like collateral damage of our deeply niched lives, which make other Americans more unknown and unknowable to us. Sometimes it can feel as if we’re an ensemble of sub-cultures today, and no culture—no shared epistemology or point of view.
There are fewer spaces of social crossing and interaction that “humanize” the other and make them less available targets for our incivility. During the recall, Wisconsin residents reported that tensions were so high and implacable that the only safe topics of social kinship were the Packers and the weather.Incivility thrives when social life is niched and anonymous. Online comments sections are the most depressing and extreme example of America’s collective hair-trigger temper (it’s as if the nation is suffering from a wicked, mood-destroying hangover that drives them to lash out). In the most basic sense, incivility is a social practice exercised against people whom we do not know, understand, care about, regard, or respect. These people simply aren’t accorded the same rich humanity—they don’t seem as “real” to us—as those who live in our particular niche, or share our ever more sequestered, cabalistic worldview.