Things we said today

Today I got a call from my sister about our other sister. When the phone rings from one family member to another, and it’s not birthday season, it’s always bad news. Our other sister, because that’s how we always called her, was dead. She was the adopted daughter of our father’s third marriage, and she was a very unhappy, angry person who the rest of us had a hard time liking, or even caring about.

At various times I’ve felt guilty about my attitude toward her, not wishing ill of someone who had such a hard time with life. But honestly, in the end she could be downright mean and nasty. Eventually I grew hardened and suspicious, resentful of her attempts to brush aside years of similar behavior with others of her siblings. I feel bad about her sad life, but that’s about all I can muster.

As this played out this afternoon, so did a quarrel between two friends on the network. The trigger, but not the root, of this was the demise of the Gillmor Gang some weeks ago. In the aftermath of that event, the realtime world of FriendFeed and to some extent Twitter seemed caught in an ugly spiral of what Mike Arrington calls mob behavior. I share Mike’s alarm at this wave of off-the-cuff vitriol, even as I continue to be at least partially blamed for the drama that swirled around our show.

I’ve tried to stay out of the controversy, other than to speak my mind during the attempt at talking through the incident in a restarted show. I even took my show’s archives down as a way of indicating how strongly I felt about the tone with which many people spoke about members of the cast and myself. I’ve enjoyed producing the show through its many incarnations and participants, and have felt for the weeks since then that something would have to change before we could return to our sessions. Today’s continued vitriol over Mike’s attempts to frame the seriousness of the issue don’t bode well.

I’m 60 years old and have always felt proud of what I’ve tried to do in my career as a journalist, filmmaker, producer, and whatever my role in the Gang could be called. I take my work seriously, and have always tried to take others’ seriously as well. Sometimes I am guilty of hyperbole and failed attempts at humor; I don’t suffer slights and insinuations with the best of grace, and stumble far more than those whose work I admire and attempt to match. I most often err on the side of silence, hoping to say nothing with as much or more impact as wading in.

We need to fix this problem, whether it’s called realtime or social media, or whatever. We need to recognize that words mean something, and those that are thrown casually or viciously carry the same force as weapons. As a community, we must begin to own that responsibility, to make it clear that disagreement can be expressed without name calling, that fighting for innovation and progress does not excuse ugliness and slander, that we live in a world where news travels fast and emotions faster. We need to own our words, and we need to help each other to understand when we go too far.

I can understand when people make mistakes, when their passion gets the better of them. But saying nothing while people heap scorn and ugliness on others needs to stop. We must learn to separate argument from personal attacks. No one is immune from this criticism. I have failed at this regularly, even as I pretty it up with humor and caustic silence. It’s easy to want an eye for an eye, but we have to start somewhere to break the cycle. If that means I need to say what I mean instead of waiting for others, so be it.

When I got off the call with my sister, I told her that even though I didn’t want to admit it, the bad news could have been a lot worse. I wished my other sister no ill will, but thank god it wasn’t any of the others. I have to live with that feeling about myself, that sometimes things go too far and there’s no turning back. If I’ve gone too far down that road with any of you, I apologize. Let’s try and work toward less of this ugliness, and failing that, figure out a way to share in a community of people who respect some sort of rules about discourse.