Most of us are familiar with some version of what’s popularly known as the Golden Rule. Here is the formulation attributed to Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (ESV). However familiar we might be with this moral principle in the abstract, we seem to be unaware of all the particular situations to which it could be applied.
For instance, consider this less than elegant imperative that I offer my students: read and write as you would want to be read and written to. The underlying principles are fairly straightforward: read the work of others with the same generosity of spirit with which you would want your own writing considered. Likewise, write with the same care that you would have others take when they write what they would have you read.
Along similar lines, I’ll attempt to put these principles, and a few others like them, a bit more succinctly and apply them to our online interactions. These principles are chiefly concerned with the internet as a space for public discourse, and the premise in each case is that online we are or ought to be our brother and sister’s keeper. I grant at the outset that this may all be hopelessly naive, and, more importantly, that much more could be said.
1. Read generously.
In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel wrote, “All writing depends upon the generosity of the reader.” This can hardly be improved upon. The point is not that we should simply accept all that we read. Rather, the point is that understanding should ordinarily precede criticism, and understanding requires a measure of sympathy. If not sympathy, then at least a genuine openness of mind, a willingness to enter into the mental world of the writer. Knowing how much bias we ordinarily bring to the work of understanding, I would go so far as to say that we should strive to read our enemies as if they were our friends and our friends as if they were our enemies.
2. Write carefully.
By which I mean, quite literally, that our writing should be full of care, particularly for those who would read it. The philosopher Stephen Toulmin once observed, “The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.” Before we complain about being misunderstood, we should ask ourselves if we’ve done all we can to make ourselves understood. This is no easy task, to be sure. Communicating with nothing but these precious little marks on a screen is a precarious business. But if we are going to attempt it, let us at least do it with as much care as we can muster.
3. Cite abundantly.
Give credit where credit is due. For instance, I’ll note here that I owe my knowledge of the line by Manguel to Alan Jacob’s fine little book, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction. When we have learned something from others, we should do them the courtesy of acknowledging their labors.
4. Link mindfully.
If we are going to be a relay in the network, let us at least do so with a view to making our little corner of the network a bit more truthful. So much of what comes across our feeds is inaccurate, misleading, or worse. It is true that we cannot all be full-time fact checkers, of course. But it doesn’t take too much digging to verify the validity of a statistic, a historical claim, or the attribution of authorship. If it raises a red-flag and you don’t have the time or desire to scrutinize the claims, then don’t pass it along even if (especially if) it supports your “side” of things. We can all do better than embracing misinformation as we fight for our causes. Remember, too, that knowingly floating misleading half-truths is the work of serpents and witches. “Tell the truth, and shame the devil!” Shakespeare’s Hotspur declares. Let us do, likewise. Link to the truth, and shame the devil!
5. Share sparingly.
I am thinking here about the claim our sharing makes upon our neighbor’s attention. Our attention is a precious and limited resource; we should guard it vigilantly and we should take some care to keep from taxing the attention of others. It is true that our action alone may not make much of a difference; this could be an ineffectual strategy. And, perhaps, it is also true that those to whom we are connected online may not even see matters as we do. Somehow, though, I think we should learn to take some responsibility for the demands we make of the attention of others.
6. Correct graciously …
… if you must. Sometimes it is enough that we simply do not perpetuate a falsehood; sometimes more may be required of us. Let me be clear about what I mean. I’m not exactly a big fan of the xkcd comics, but this old classic is still valuable.
Yes, someone is always wrong on the Internet, and I’m not suggesting that we go on a crusade against error. Letting it die upon reaching us is often good enough. Occasionally, however, it may be that failing to engage online is a form of morally questionable silence. Use your judgement, lay aside all self-righteousness, and proceed with as much grace as the situation allows. And, of course, let us hear the criticisms others present to us in a similar spirit, remembering that we need not always make reply. Silence in the face of evil may be a moral failure; silence before our critics is sometimes the better part of wisdom.
7. Respect, always.
Respect the privacy of others, respect their time, respect the dignity inherent in their humanity. Do not give offense needlessly. Do not be reckless with another’s reputation. Treat the other human beings with which you interact as ends in themselves. On the other side of every book we read, I remind my students, is another human being. That they may be dead does not alter the fact. On the other side of every post, status update, avatar, and online profile is another human being.* Let us resist the temptation, then, to take them up as mere means in our projects of self-promotion and identity performance.
*Yes, bots and fake accounts complicate this picture, but use your judgment accordingly.