An annual survey of Americans on the civility of our national life is out, and once again, the media’s high up on the list of folks people apparently blame.
55 percent of the 1,000 people surveyed said they thought that the country was getting less civilized. And of those people, 50 percent said the media was a contributor, just behind Kids These Days at 55 percent, and above celebrities at 42 percent. (Only 29 percent of respondents said they thought sports figures were helping make America less civil.) 65 percent of overall respondents said that the tone of American popular culture was generally uncivil, while 62 percent said that the tone of the media was generally uncivil. Fox News was perceived to be less civil than MSNBC by a narrow margin: 35 percent of respondents said the former was generally uncivil in tone, while 31 percent said the same about the latter.
There’s no question that people perceive some level of incivility to be a negative: in the 2012 study, 81 percent of respondents told the folks who conducted the survey said they thought incivility in government was a danger to the country’s future, and 72 percent said incivility was turning potential public servants away from government. And they self-report tuning out political advertising at a rate of 66 percent, election coverage at a rate of 54 percent, and opinion journalism at a rate or 49 percent and reported news at a rate of 45 percent, though that doesn’t mean those numbers are an accurate depiction of their actual behavior.
But when it comes to media and popular culture, I tend to think that we find incivility exciting. Conflict is a great driver of narrative, whether it’s the kind of nastiness that leads people on the same side of a war to try to off each other in the midst of a battle in Game of Thrones or high school meanness to be overcome through song in Glee. Tyrion Lannister and Coach Sylvester are fan favorites (or were, prior to their gross overuse) in part because they’re good with zingers. In Tyrion’s case, his verbal slaps are generally aimed at worthy targets, but that doesn’t make him a paragon of sweetness and light. We love mean people on reality television as long as they seem smart rather than delusional. And when it comes to celebrity gossip, our consumptive habits suggest we’re giant hypocrites: we adore nothing more than to destroy someone and then cheer their rise so we can do it all over again. It’s fun to condemn incivility in principal, but everything about our choices suggests that a lot of the time, we have an enormous amount of fun with it.