The Fox News website posted a straightforward story earlier this month about President Obama’s daughter, Malia, and her plans to attend Harvard in 2017, after taking a year off from school.
It didn’t take long before the site had to remove all comments from the story. As the Teen Vogue website reported, people were calling the president’s daughter all sorts of nasty things, from “ape” to the infamous “N” word.
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What happened to Malia is not unique in this age. People love to hurl insults.
Pundits have warned Americans that the upcoming presidential election between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton may set records in that regard. Trump told NBC’s Today Show on Tuesday that if Clinton intended to "play the woman card," presumably by criticizing him for past comments or actions, he would bring up Bill Clinton’s troubled past.
Anyone wish to lay odds as to whether this will happen?
Already, personal insults peppered the Republican race for the nomination in ways not seen in modern politics. Much of social media is littered with the same.
Some readers have criticized me for saying this is a disturbing trend with huge implications for the future of the republic. With all that is at stake this year, they say, a few insults and profanities, especially in this day and age, are inconsequential. These people are naïve. There is evidence incivility is a growing problem nationwide, not just in politics, and that it affects everything from productivity to innovative thought.
Mother’s Day should be a reminder of what many of our mothers taught us, which is to be polite, high-minded and slow to anger. As with a lot of the wisdom from our elders, that one was more than just a nice notion. It came with real benefits.
Three years ago, the Harvard Business Review published a paper by Christine Porath, an associate professor of management at Georgetown University. Titled, “The price of incivility,” the paper studied the effects of incivility in the workplace and came to some interesting conclusions.
In one experiment, Porath and another professor separated participants into two groups and asked them to think of things they could do with a simple brick. One group was treated rudely, the other civilly. The rude group had 25 percent fewer ideas, and what they came up with wasn’t very original — “build a house,” “build a wall,” “build a school.”
The other group came up with things like, “sell the brick on eBay,” “use it as a goalpost for a street soccer game,” or “hang it on a museum wall and call it abstract art.”
In a poll of 800 managers and workers across 17 industries, Porath found those who experienced incivility spent less time at work, exerted far less effort, produced less quality work and, perhaps most significantly, ended up taking out their frustrations on customers — paying it forward, if you will.
She also found that uncivil behavior had increased significantly over the 14 years she had been conducting these polls. In 1998, only 25 percent said they were treated rudely at least once a week. By 2011, the figure was about 50 percent.
You don’t have to be a professional observer to see this workplace trend exhibited in many other parts of society.
Two months ago, engineers at Microsoft decided to conduct a learning experiment by setting up a Twitter account for an artificial intelligence bot they called Tay. The idea was that Tay, designed to replicate a teenage girl, would learn through interaction with real humans.
Within hours, Tay was a Holocaust-denying sexist spewing racist comments and unfiltered filth. Engineers tried to tweak her and strengthen her principles and values, but when they re-launched the experiment, Tay soon began boasting that she was smoking marijuana in front of the police.
I’m not sure Tay would have turned out any different had she learned by watching television or talking with people at a political rally.
Malia Obama probably is used to the pitfalls of celebrity, but she also is quite human and susceptible to feelings, as are we all.
Our mothers were right. If we don’t start acting better, the future may be dismal.