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We no longer reward order and discipline, and so by plan or by default we have incentivized disorder.

A Discipline Problem

Nov. 8, 2019
Each of us is responsible for our own behavior, but without public institutions or individuals to model acceptable behavior we have no standards at all.

From my earliest memory I understood that some actions were wrong and even punishable. I learned to classify the words and behavior that would earn praise or reward, as well as those that would draw unwelcome consequences. In my particular experience, profanity was very specifically categorized, as were the various subjects represented by vulgarity and profanity that were likely to lead me into trouble. I do not mean that I was left ignorant of these matters, but rather that I was made to understand that I had to learn to discipline my mind to make good judgments, to recognize and reject impulsive behavior, just as I had to learn to wash and dress myself, to comport myself according to my circumstances (at the table, in school or church, etc.)

I am certain that the most effective and lasting lessons I learned on all this were done by example. My parents and relatives corrected me when necessary, but more effectively they modeled the behavior that they expected me to learn.

Do not suppose that I am claiming any virtue or superiority in this. Things drift in and out of my mind that I know are inappropriate to speak out loud. They are inappropriate mainly because they do not promote civility and comity among my family, friends, colleagues, or anyone whose company I may share. They are disruptive.

All this rumination follows a report that one U.S. Senator is hopeful of cracking down on profanity and threats of violence against the government and its individual members in government-hosted comment sites. I will not name the senator (it might have the wrong effect) but note that the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released a bipartisan report documenting extensive misuse of forums that 14 federal agencies make available to collect comments from the public. The online comment process lets Americans provide input on proposed rules from federal agencies like OSHA or EPA. It is a useful and, practically speaking, a necessary aspect of representative democracy.

Apparently, however, substantive responses are often subsumed by the vulgarity, incivility, slander, and so forth, some of which violates Federal Communications Commission standards, and some which may constitute criminal threats.

Can anyone be surprised by this? Over several years I have written repeatedly about the declining influence of public institutions that modeled standards of behavior and sometimes enforced penalties on individuals determined to be in violation of those standards. Schools, churches, law enforcement agencies, courts, financial institutions, government bodies — all are under constant scrutiny for malfeasance, abuse of power or authority, fraud, or other violations of civil and individual rights. The nominal principle of individual autonomy in Western civilization has been so broadly applied that it cannot be stalled or blocked by the loose structure of public decency standards. Think of dress codes, if you doubt my meaning on this. Or more pointedly, think of the way public officials conduct themselves when not decrying the behavior of others.

The evidence of the problem is not hard to collect, but addressing it is more daunting. The Committee report cited here recommended that the Congress should amend FCC regulations to allow federal agencies to reject “abusive, profane, or threatening comments; irrelevant comments; or comments submitted under a false identity”.

It’s apparent of course that federal officials are hopeful of protecting themselves against threats, but also against misrepresentation. The anxiety about election meddling via social media may well be the primary concern of this Committee’s initiative.

In any case it’s likely that the feds have assessed the situation much too narrowly or self-interestedly to make any difference in the broader problem. A federal ban on incivility would be a nod in the right direction, but wholly ineffective and probably counter-productive: it would attract ridicule, reducing even further any public respect for authority.

This is a discipline problem. People behave in ways that are rewarded, but Western culture no longer rewards order and discipline. And so, by plan or by default we have incentivized disorder. What may happen next is too dreadful to think about.