Monday, 18 May 2015

Freedom of speech?

It is not that long ago that many were linking arms in protests all over the world, chanting the phrase, "Je suis Charlie". Even if the flush of those protests is long over, it was a very loud message designed to let all know that we believed in the right of free speech, that no-one should die for that expression. This should not be confused with support for the actual message which Charlie expressed but for the journalists' right to express it without fear of their lives. At the same time I have somewhat shocked at the level of abuse hurled by both liberals and conservatives at those who would dare to disagree with them, including death threats in some instances. I have seen people lose their jobs for expressing their personal opinion on certain topical subjects.

So how do we make judgements as to where does freedom of expression end and abuse begin? The sad thing is that our society does not have a good track record for consistency in those judgements. Perhaps it is my perception but it appears that instances of abusive behavior and expression are escalating. At the same time, I have more frequently witnessed efforts to suppress oppositional thinking. In these instances there have been no large parades, no signs, no leaders coming out in solidarity for freedom of speech.

I do not pretend to be an expert on this subject and I am treating this more as a learning exercise because the subject of freedom of expression is not simple or straightforward. These are the principles I understand but I welcome others that you see may equally apply.

1Every person has the right to seek, receive and impart information and opinions freely under terms set forth in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I note that this description does not talk about the right to abuse, shame or vilify others. 

2. It applies to all or it is not free: The above principle in Article 19 applies to both the giver and the receiver of information and opinions. Freedom of speech means not only do I have the right to my own opinions and beliefs but it means that I have to respect your right to self-expression also.

3. For freedom of expression to work in a democratic society it  requires patience, tolerance and compassion. It cannot work without mutual respect and with some large measure of giving space to others.

4. Freedom of expression means that you don't always have to be wrong in order for me to be right. While we have every right to state when we believe that someone is wrong (in our minds) we do not have the right to attempt to suppress them from thinking or believing their own truth. However, I think that we would go a lot further in being able to exchange information and opinions if we were to remove much of the personal insults out of the equation. What I am witnessing so often with the personal abuse that is hurled is that this distracts from true, principled discussion. We are focussing too much on the personalities and not enough on the issues. We look to denigrate and stomp out any opposition with abusive rhetoric about the PERSON and not the topic. This lowers the level of intelligent conversation in our homes, in our workplaces and in our society as a whole.

5. Freedom of expression should be largely principle based and not personality based. Yes, we can have an opinion on someone, we can feel emotionally moved or upset by someone's behavior but when we allow those emotions to boil over into abuse and an attempt to manipulate another person then we have gone too far. This is disastrous not just because it hurts others but because we lose the ability to truly discuss opposing principles and to learn from each other.

6. There is a fine line between free speech and hate speechIn my opinion, we will know when free speech has truly enhanced democracy by its fruits. True exercise of freedom of expression can inspire, promote thought, clarify, adjust and/or strengthen our opinions and understanding. It does not mean that we will necessarily come to agree with all opinion givers. 

Conversely, when I read comments on some articles and blogs that speak of "idiots", "that person should be dead", "I hate them" or similar statements, then I feel nothing but their anger and I feel fear for our society as a whole. Such statements do not encourage free and intelligent thinking. I have witnessed such statements made by top influencers in our society, by and about politicians, lawyers and judges, top businessmen and other personalities who are able to personally denigrate without impunity and where the message is one of suppression for anything but their particular opinion. 

Name calling can never equal intelligence nor encourage sound debate. This is perhaps our current problem with so many in our society where debate is not the objective but the forcing of people to step in line with a particular belief. I question whether this arises from our insecurities. Do we need to make sure that all others believe as we do in order for us to justify our position? Are we afraid that real debate will undermine us and our choices? If so, then we are coming from a place as victims and not from a position of personal power. Threatening others personally to avoid a true discussion is sign of personal weakness and never a position of authority.