The Rule Of The Road by Alfred George Gardiner is easily one of the most delightful essays I have read during my teens. Gardiner captures the essence of our social contract in the following paragraph that has resonated in my mind over decades. ‘I shall not permit any authority to say that my child must go to this school or that, shall specialise in science or arts, shall play rugger or soccer. These things are personal. But if I proceed to say that my child shall have no education at all, that he shall be brought up as a primeval savage, or at Mr. Fagin’s academy for pickpockets, then Society will politely but firmly tell me that it has no use for primeval savages and a very stern objection to pickpockets, and that my child must have a certain minimum of education whether I like it or not. I cannot have the liberty to be a nuisance to my neighbours or make my child a burden and a danger to the commonwealth’. Taking Gardiner’s essay forward to every day interactions of life, a practice of civil discourse then should be the centrepiece of our democratic society and is as equally important as free speech.
In order to preserve the liberties of everyone, a little bit of the liberties of everyone needs to be curtailed.
The maxim that, in order to preserve the liberties of everyone, a little bit of the liberties of everyone needs to be curtailed is so beautifully captured by Gardiner. Alfred Gardiner belonged to an age before social media and the ICT revolution, a much more relaxed and a laid-back world. The information age gives us great liberty to communicate and express our views to many people simultaneously. This communication with people separated by vast geographical distances, in different cultural settings and in different time zones with differing moods is a new paradigm. While people in India might be unwinding in the weekend with a whisky, others in the US might be starting a busy and stressful day. While some might be celebrating a local festival or a sporting event, others could be in mourning or in midst of a calamity. A private joke between two individuals copy pasted into a group chat can provoke both mirth and anger in different measures in individuals. A satirical political view espoused while drinking beer with friends in Goa might trigger rage in a completely different setting in Haryana. In normal social settings, society has evolved to be sensitive to the condition of their immediate neighbourhood. People make concessions, for behavioural norms during festivities and disaster that otherwise might not be easily tolerated.
The leader who could conduct himself in times of extreme stress with poise and civil discourse was revered and hailed as a statesman.
Social media has disrupted this social construct, as the mental and circumstantial settings of a particular group of individuals might widely vary with the originator of the communication totally unaware of this dissonance. Social media has enormous potential to disrupt social cohesion and calls for a re-examination and re-education in our normal communication patterns. A need for a civil discourse on contentious matters was always recognised as a virtue all though history. It was considered the mark of the educated and of nobility. The leader who could conduct himself in times of extreme stress with poise and civil discourse was revered and hailed as a statesman. To practice restraint and convey a point using the appropriate word and sentence construct is an art that needs to be practiced and mastered on social media. A casual examination of publically visible social media interactions show a wide array of crude and vituperative comments.
Traditionally tolerant societies where matters of religion and politics were mostly discussed in small closed groups of friends and family have now been thrown open into the arena of the public sphere of debate. This has created an appearance of a fractured and divisive polity among even groups of close friends tied together by multiple societal bonds. An understanding that hitherto contentious matters which rarely were discussed, will now be openly dissected in the public sphere needs to be appreciated and internalised. This new world can only be faced by going back to the old art of a practice in civil discourse. The revolution in communications and connectivity can then also lead to a more fractured society and planet, as opposed to the planned close knit cohesiveness that many thought would obtain.
Our education systems will have to rapidly evolve and train not only the youth but will need to educate the much older generations. These age groups are those who have the leisure to comment and shape society. Media and social platforms need to adapt and help in this change. AI can definitely help by giving a alert about the suitability of words and sentence constructs before the send buttons are pressed. There are many who will decry such a thought as suppressing free speech. My intentions are far from it, a warning so that a second thought might moderate a harsh word or sentence is all it takes. We need to evolve and adapt in this age of instantaneous mass communication.