Following the Twitter feed of David Lammy, the member of parliament for Tottenham, there is a sense of astonishment at the abuse he suffers. Racism, profanities, semi-literate rants, the ramblings of angry and violent minds seem the stuff of everyday life for the politician. Perhaps everyone in public life has now to endure vile comments as part of their daily work. Such abuse is not the exercise of the freedom of speech; it is simply abuse and should be called as such.
If there is a pendulum of public opinion, then it must be time when it began to swing in the opposite direction. Anonymous commenters making foul comments about elected representatives should find no platform; those who think words of aggression and obscenities are normal and acceptable should find themselves isolated. It would be a straightforward matter for the social media platforms to block accounts, if necessary to block account after account. Abusive behaviour is not an expression of individual freedom.
In childhood days, there was an organisation called the Polite Society, it was a concept that must have seemed anachronistic against the background of the social revolution of the 1960s; it would have been associated with social and political conservatism and would have been perceived as a reaction against the new found sense of individual freedom.
The Polite Society itself realised that perceptions of it were not as members would have wished and in 1986 it was relaunched as the National Campaign for Courtesy. The campaign’s website highlights moments of courtesy, its recent links are videos of the post-match friendship and handshakes at the end of international rugby matches. The members of the campaign are committed to:
- Good manners
- Respect for self and others
- Courtesy for all
- Rejection of anti-social behaviour
Is there good reason why governments cannot require social media to adopt the objects of the campaign? Is it too much to expect basic decency and a rejection of that which is anti-social? To encourage the implementation of a code of courtesy would be a simple matter. Naming businesses who still advertised on sites that breached the code would cause consumers to reconsider giving such businesses custom and businesses responsive to consumer sentiment would quickly move their advertising.
To allow abusers to proceed unhindered threatens the very freedoms a civilised society would espouse, freedom to enjoy life, freedom from threats and fear, freedom to express legitimate opinions. Courtesy costs nothing, a lack of it costs us the sort of world we want.