THE BLOG
03/04/2014 05:19 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2014

The New College Button: Question Assholes

When I was an undergraduate at Boston University in the early 1980s, like many, I wore a "Question Authority" button on my backpack. A weak-tea attempt to connect with the student activism of a bygone era perhaps, but at least we stood for something. Lifted from a quote by Benjamin Franklin who encouraged, "It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority," the phrase captured our youthful distrust of power concentrated in the hands of a few. Today we have the opposite problem: We need a healthy distrust of power dissipated into the hands of the many.

There needs to be a rethinking of the responsibilities of citizenship in the age of social media. It starts with identifying the threats to our collective conversation and culture. It is the duty of all good citizens today to question assholes, take them to task, put them in check. It's the social doctrine and citizen compact of our new age.

The age of social media has meant the power to shape opinions, policy and markets has been atomized and decentralized. Now each of us has a high degree of authority (and many believe they are authorities). Sure, thanks to the Internet there are numerous new avenues for healthy debate, social transparency and mic-checking those in positions of power. But, it's also created unintended consequences. Citizen media has provided a bully pulpit to any whack job with wifi or meanie with a mobile phone. New modes of communication and association have not brought us closer, but rather in many ways have sharpened what divides us (Hayes's Law: The more connected we get the more divided we become). Social media has spawned a new breed of ugly citizen who makes outrageous noise because it gets attention -- and attention is the oxygen of the Internet. Given our power to curate news for ourselves, the well-intentioned among us tend to filter out the negative, avert our eyes and simply choose to dismiss these bullies. That's a mistake. Surely, the second responsibility of citizenship is to protect the commons.

Because everyone now has a printing press/radio station/TV network, our common space today has become a cluster frag of rebranded racism, ad hominem attacks, fringe science and political paranoia. People like Ted Nugent and Donald Trump say dangerous crazy-ass stuff all the time but never get called out by their fellow citizens, not really. They may take some return fire from a few political opponents (negative attention equally feeds their perversion, by the way), but usually they just get a pass. Their hurtful words take a day's ride in a news cycle, a mild buzz surfaces, we collectively shudder and move on. People of goodwill assume other people of goodwill see through the BS and they merely shrug it off. But bemused indifference is not good citizenship. It's complicit. We who look away at bad civic behavior are just as guilty as the perpetrators (worse because we know better). And, ignore public ugliness for too long; we get dulled to it, deaf to its nuance, immune to all the new strands of hate and intolerance that mutate.

So what do we do? My kids are in college now, I suggest they're generation wears a new button: Question Assholes.

I apologize for the vernacular. But language matters and until we name it we can't claim it. The best we can do is label these miscreants for what they are. Webster's defines asshole as a vulgarity used to describe a "a stupid, incompetent, or detestable person." I would add to that definition the uncivil, the uncouth, the socially retarded and the spiritually vapid. You know, Am radio blowhards, web wingnuts, megalomaniacal bosses, even shitty drivers (like those who insist on backing into every parking spot). In short, assholes are self-absorbed, self-unaware people who hurt others in the thoughtless pursuit of what they want.

Assholes must be challenged. To be a champion of democracy today, you must stand up to those whose words and deeds weaken our civil discourse. The alternative is tacit approval. When a Rush Limbaugh gets away with being a jerk, it sends a signal to a Justin Bieber that he can piss in the kitchen too. Unless you flush them out, these aerated turds have a tendency to float to the top of the meme pool. What doesn't kill them off often makes them stronger.

There was a time when you could shame assholes, was a time when shame provided the guardrails to civil society. No longer. Often out of simple curiosity, shameless behavior gets ratings, click-throughs, followers and even likes today. Rather than call an asshole out directly, we are more likely to retweet their absurdities so that our like-minded friends can share in our muted rage. But that's not good enough anymore. We need to bring back shame -- today's scarlet A needs to stand for asshole. But not the passive shunning type of shame, rather an active brand of citizenship that stands up for fair rules of engagement that allow us to differ without straining the fabric of our society.

We can't raise our standards by lowering our guard. Tolerance of others is a canon of decent society; tolerance of assholes is no virtue at all. There needs to be a rethinking of the responsibilities of citizenship in the age of social media. It starts with identifying the threats to our collective conversation and culture. It is the duty of all good citizens today to question assholes, take them to task, put them in check. It's the social doctrine and citizen compact of our new age. Start wearing your button today.