“If you can’t say anything nice, then it’s best not to say anything at all.” Do you remember your mother saying something similar to you when you were young? I do, and it is something that has come back to me repeatedly in recent weeks.

The reason for this, in part, is because of my recent foray into the world of social media. I recently joined Facebook, due in part to the urging of the good people at this magazine who asked me to write this small column for you each month.

I have also taken to a closer examination of the comments that nowadays regularly accompany the articles on the websites of newspapers and magazines. This experiment has been eye-opening to say the least.

After a few weeks touring this marketplace of ideas, my feelings on the general level of discourse in these forums is one of disappointment and approaching, on occasion, despair.

I understand that this will not be news to many of you. Perhaps a few of you reading this enjoy the practice of ‘trolling’, or posting intentionally inflammatory comments in such spaces. But as I think we all really know, these kinds of comments say more about the commenter than anything else.

A study by researchers at the University of Manitoba that was reported in the media recently found that those engaging in such actions exhibited much greater instances of behaviour consistent with narcissism, psychopathy and sadism. In short, this means almost total self-involvement, the inability to empathise and taking pleasure in the suffering of others.

The invective, abusive language, and frankly astonishing ignorance that generally passes for comment in this sphere is astounding (there are exceptions, of course). But this leaves me in a personally difficult position, philosophically speaking.

You see, as a libertarian-minded sort of fellow I naturally incline towards defending the right of anyone to freely voice his opinion. Yet there are caveats to this stand. Inciting people to violence is clearly indefensible, as is any suggestion of harm towards children.

That leaves, then, a broad spectrum of opinion and comment that one should be able to express without fear of censor. And I will always defend that right. But just because you can express your opinion with all the vulgarity, aggressiveness and idiocy you may wish — does not mean you should.

The level of public discourse, and therefore the level of our own governance, has become hopelessly polarised in recent years. Just look at the state of US politics these past years. Are we following our leaders or are they following our lead?

But what really gets my goat about the whole issue is the inherent cowardice of it all. I cannot escape the conclusion that the worst offenders in the online comment world would not dare utter such incendiary statements to another’s face. But safe behind the anonymity of the keyboard, they are full of courage.

Oh, and let’s not forget the rampant stupidity. There seems to also be an awful lot of that.

A good deal more rational analysis and discussion would see us all the better served. If you will forgive the irony of me saying this in an opinion column, I would suggest that to improve the level of debate around serious issues in society we could all do well to read more, listen more and say less.

JW Sherman is an American management consultant who has been living in Southeast Asia for more than 20 years.

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