As we gear up for the fairly contentious election Tuesday of a new member of the Board of Selectmen, an issue is permeating debate on both sides of the choice: the lack of civility in Provincetown politics. It’s preceded this particular election and will no doubt continue long after either Lise King or Mark Hatch is elected, and it’s frankly more important than this specific decision.
When WOMR Executive Director John Braden asked the candidates what stands in the way of people serving the town on boards and committees—volunteer positions that often seem notoriously difficult to fill—it was the only issue on which there was at least some agreement: both candidates answered that it has to do with the constant public (and often virulent) criticism of board decisions and performance.
And they’re right.
Hatch spoke of the incredibly long hours and hard work done by committee/board members, who then must face what he called a “buzzsaw” of criticism. Most people, he said, ask themselves, “Why should I put myself in front of this train?” King, for her part, brought up the escalation of issues on Facebook. “The environment, the atmosphere that’s happening around our town government and our town meetings is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.
The phenomenon of trolling is well-known. It’s been a chief online characteristic since there’s been an Internet (I can remember the frequent nastiness exhibited in places like Delphi and The Well, back in the days before everyone had a home computer and the term “social media” wasn’t even dreamt of), and human nature being what it is, it will probably never disappear. Small people with no other mouthpiece will always try to make points on the backs of people who actually do something, and the more inadequate they feel, the more poisonous they sound.
Anyone spending time on any of Ptown’s Facebook groups knows that even in our rarefied seaside air, trolling is alive and well—and overactive. Even when it’s not election season, the most innocuous of posts can elicit venom and ridicule beyond sense or context. I’ve written about the phenomenon in this column before and am certainly not the only one to have removed a post due to being hurt by its responses.
Why do we do it?
I think there are two different aspects to that question. Why people troll online is explained by a combination of mob mentality and online desensitization. We’re all familiar with the first factor: people regress when they’re in groups, and they do things they’d never dream of doing as an individual. At its most extreme, this results in events like My Lai; at its most ordinary, it’s partisan politics or sports fandom. Desensitization is in essence losing your filter: all the things that good manners and empathy dictate we think and don’t say become perceived as reasonable online. It sucks, but it’s real.
Why do we do it? That is, bearing in mind the cruelty that can characterize online behavior, why do we as a community engage in it? You might think after all there’s enough “out there” (on our national stage, in the world) to legitimately criticize without needing to pick nits here at home. And Ptown prides itself on being inclusive, affirming, and generous of spirit.
I don’t know the answer. But I do know that the candidates are correct: this immediate rush to criticism and rush to judgment hampers participation and civic involvement. When you know that you will be vilified for doing something, you tend to not want to do it.
We all say we want a stronger community. We all say that things aren’t running the way they “should” be. But the truth is that most of us don’t take the time or the energy necessary to serve the community on a board or committee.
Isn’t it the least we can do, then, to not make it painful for others to do so? In this very uncivil season in America, we at least could introduce some civility into our daily interactions. We’ve seen the consequences of a lack of civility translate into the present administration in Washington.
Surely Provincetown can do better.