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How we can be more civilised online

June 03, 2015

As the Internet and social media become more intertwined with our lives, we begin to see how the best and worst of human nature get amplified online. While the better actions of humankind do not get as much attention as they should in cyberspace, unkind posts, rude comments and unsavoury speech tend to proliferate and spread rapidly.

As the Internet and social media become more intertwined with our lives, we begin to see how the best and worst of human nature get amplified online. While the better actions of humankind do not get as much attention as they should in cyberspace, unkind posts, rude comments and unsavoury speech tend to proliferate and spread rapidly.

As general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, I occasionally contribute articles to the newspapers on current issues pertaining to kindness and graciousness.

Two of my commentaries have elicited much response, both positive and negative. Some of the more negative ones contain angry and rude comments, punctuated with insults and name-calling typical of the incivility that permeates some quarters of our social media.

Shielded by the cloak of anonymity, the shrill voices, complete with expletives, often reaching fever pitch, pollute the cybersphere. These Internet users are no doubt passionate and see it as their duty to straighten me out, albeit without any consideration as to how to disagree with me without being disagreeable.

Civility is about how we register our disagreement, without being disagreeable. It is about finding positive ways to have conversations with one another in the public space. To quote Professor James Calvin Davis in his book, In Defence Of Civility, civility is “the exercise of patience, integrity, humility and mutual respect in civil conversation, even (and especially) with those with whom we disagree”. Civility does not require that we compromise or abandon our particular convictions and values.

It merely requires us to negotiate our disagreements with fellow citizens in wholesome ways, because we respect them as citizens and human beings, having equal rights to express themselves freely and responsibly.

CURBING ONLINE ANGER

Civility is about knowing when and how to disagree without letting a situation descend into a slugfest. It is about having constructive conversations so as to raise the quality of discourse. If we want people to listen to our side of the story, we should start by acknowledging the points made by the other party. Tell them what we have learnt from them. Look for areas of common ground. And then, we can respectfully put across our views on why we disagree.

Having said that, I must admit it is very tempting to throw civility out the window and respond emotionally when we feel we are right, or when we feel unjustly criticised. We feel angry, and rightly so.

But there is the crux of the problem, when we do not curb anger in the digital world. Anger breeds anger, and it spirals downwards into extreme incivility of revenge and retaliation. I am reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s saying, that “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind”.

Gandhi has also made famous the powerful idea that “you must be the change you wish to see in the world”, which requires that we master our thoughts and control our actions. The spirit of retaliation is a negative one that abdicates the mastery of our own thoughts and actions.

The Internet has given individuals the power to change the world. We can begin to spur that change by recognising words and actions have a far greater impact and permanence online.

This is why we need to be slow to anger, to avoid knee-jerk reactions and be more reflective and conscious of our online actions. I believe we can drive change just by extending civility, kindness, graciousness and constructiveness to the online space. I am, therefore, heartened to see ongoing movements such as the Better Internet campaign by the Media Literacy Council and the Brollzone initiative by four Nanyang Technological University students to encourage positive online behaviour and social norms.

This is very important because if we believe in free speech, we must also be responsible in the way we use that freedom. More precisely, we must be responsible enough not to misuse or abuse that freedom. Disagreeing in a civil manner is a good sign of societal progress towards responsible free speech.

As French philosopher Voltaire was supposed to have said: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” We will safely arrive at that point in our public discourse only when we are able to conduct conversations online with respect for and civility towards one another. Until then, Voltaire’s philosophy is simply an ideal to which we should aspire.

Singapore marked Kindness Day at the weekend. Many of us are already kind and gracious in the offline world. Let us not only keep on doing that but, like the Better Internet campaign urges, also extend that graciousness and civility online, because being online is no different from being offline.

Dr William Wan
General Secretary
Singapore Kindness Movement

First published in TODAY – June 1, 2015


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