Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Respect and Good Manners

An old pal of mine, Steve Allison, has a comment policy on his blog, which I have reproduced below:

Anyone is welcome to read this blog but the blog settings require my approval before a comment made by a reader is posted for all to see. Only on rare occasions will I accept anonymous comments and I will never allow anonymous comments that are insulting or attack me personally. If someone wants to have a go at me then I see no reason to give them a platform to do so.

Steve and I know each other through politics but, as I am now less politically active, we tend to keep in touch via our blogs. I've always felt sad that Steve has found it necessary to have this comment policy, but don't blame him in the least.

Over the years, although generally on the same side, Steve and I have disagreed on various issues, often quite heatedly and even intensely. But we have never resorted to personal abuse or childish name calling. By and large we have always treated each other with respect.

While the internet has opened up countless opportunities for millions of people, to make their working lives easier, research easier, the chance to comment on issues easier or just to keep in touch with friends and family, there is also a downside. Too many people seem to lose respect and good manners when they sit behind a keyboard. And I'm not going to try and say that I am completely innocent, I'm not. There have been times I've said things, on blogs or emails for example in the heat of the moment, and afterwards deeply regretted what I've said.

The last week has really brought into sharp focus the problem of abuse on the internet, and elsewhere, in our ever more intense and accessible media environment. Nobody in this world is, or should ever be, immune from criticism but what the iternet has done is opened the doors to nasty and unnecessary personal attacks on others by people who seem to lack the intellect to argue fom a constructive and respectful position against those they disagree with.

As a libertarian I oppose limitations on free speech. In my view we have free speech or we don't, you cannot have degrees of free speech. A common argument among libertarians is that just because something offends somebody somewhere, it shouldn't be banned. But responsible libertarians, indeed responsible people, should not go out intending to cause offence. Merely hurling vile personal abuse is an abuse of free speech. The internet has opened up a whole culture of people wallowing in their ability to be as personally unpleasant and foul mouthed towards opponents as they possibly can. That is demeaning.

One of the reasons I oppose limits on free speech is because I would rather know what Tom, Dick or Harry actually believes so that I can decide whether to associate with them, join their club, vote for them or whatever. That self regulation has been extremely effective this last week. I don't claim to be holier than thou, I'm not saying we should sanitise communication and debate, passion is vital and that often leads to heated debate that often goes too far, but that's life. I'm concerned about gratuitous insult, often accompanied by lies or, at best, half truths.

There are so many ways that self-regulation can come into play. Indeed, it's actually quite simple. When writing we can consider how we would feel if what we are saying was directed at ourselves. If we would be offended then why offend others?

Another way is to consider whether or not we would be prepared to say what we are about to write to the person's face. If not, then don't write it. It used to be called cowardice.

Many of us are proud of the reputation we British have for respecting others and for our good manners. It would be nice to think that those qualities would naturally limit the potential abuses of true freedom of speech. But sadly too many people, many claiming to be libertarian, play into the hands of those who want to control what we say by resorting to foul mouthed abuse, half truths or lies to attack opponents and anybody they disagree with. It's also about responsibility.

There used to be a phrase my grandparents used that we might well consider anew: "If you've nowt decent to say, keep your trap shut".

No comments: