Rules of engagement: think of the children

Here's a rule for how you might – and might not – debate politics online. Ask yourself if youd say it in front of someone's children

I've been writing professionally for almost five years now. My general field is New Zealand politics. There is some danger in this. I get abuse from time to time. I have one outstanding police complaint in relation to quite despicable harassment at my place of business.

And the fallout can hit those around you as you. This has been pushed to the fore by reports of malicious and false whispers against the prime minister’s partner. I have no idea what these rumours – confirmed to be false by police – are. I don’t want to know.

Another source of danger is internal. Politics is, by its nature, contentious. It’s increasingly tribal in nature too. And it’s hard to act in good faith when you begin to default to a low personal opinion of your opponents just because they’re your opponents in matters political. It becomes that much easier to rationalise scurrilous behavior to advance your personal conception of the greater good.

But as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously observed, “the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.” And, in accordance with human nature, there are good and bad people in all political factions in this country, There is no ideology or set of principles that guarantees an unimpeachable moral character.

I am a conservative and, as a result, I have a great number of friends who are at least somewhat conservative. But there are also plenty of people with whom I agree on matters of principle, but do not like or trust in person. And there are people in my life who are more liberal and even socialist with whom I can have a blazing row about politics – but also count among the people I love most in the world.

Of course, it’s hard to maintain this perspective on the Internet. People struggle to maintain a sense of proportion in how they react to disagreement. When I stopped using Twitter, it was because I realised that the platform celebrates disgust and humiliation. And not being one of the sainted types always able to resist temptation, it was bad for me.

But in terms of online writing, I have developed a kind of internal check for myself. In short, when writing about somebody else, I ask whether I would say it to their face if they had one of their children present. And if not, I try not to write it.

I probably do not always succeed here. I am human. The line between good and evil cuts through my heart too.

It’s still a good standard to shoot for.

Because while I would happily argue with somebody else in front of their kids, I don’t think I would try to humiliate them. Good natured ribbing is one thing. So is robust disagreement or pointing out inconsistency and hypocrisy. But only a sociopath would talk to or about somebody like they were utterly worthless if their son or daughter was watching on.

The same thing goes for repeating or announcing nasty gossip and unfounded rumours; even if your prejudices mean you want them to be true, and mean you think they must be true. While we all agree that family members and other non-combatants don’t deserve that kind of treatment, I think it goes for the politicians themselves too.

Because while we all like to be confirmed in our antipathy, nobody wins when we indulge in such things. The victims pay with their dignity. The perpetrators pay with their souls.