The idea of self-censorship is alien to many. Freedom of speech is something we value, rightly so, but there are times when, as Benedict says, melius est silere quam loqui, it is better to be silent than to speak. Words are dangerous, slippery things. Once let out of the cage, they cannot be whistled back again; and while they are on the loose, they can do untold harm. When should we put a clamp over our mouths or a lock on our keyboards? Here are a few suggestions. I am sure you can add to them.
1. Never turn an argument ad hominem. Good people sometimes do bad deeds, but a personal attack is never justified unless one is in possession of all the facts (unlikely).
2. Never give way to the temptation to be patronising or dismissive: you have lost the argument if you do.
3. Never state as fact what is merely opinion. Everyone has a right to their good name. If you want to make an accusation, make sure you have evidence to back it up.
4. Never forget that acts have consequences: before you write or comment, consider what the effect on others might be, especially those who may suffer as a result.
5. Never underestimate the importance of goodwill. Encouragement achieves more than condemnation, courtesy more than rudeness — no one was ever bullied into belief.
That is not an exhaustive list, but I’m sure there will be some who will see it as a limitation on their freedom, a forcing them to be something other than they are. I myself see it as a discipline, a way of ensuring that what one writes is responsibly written. Lurking behind my suggestions is, of course, an even bigger question than how we should conduct ourselves online but, sadly, it is too big to explore in a short blog post. Can you guess what it is?