Freedom of speech has long been a contentious issue throughout the history of not just the United States, but the world. How do we express ourselves without upsetting others? How do we go about hearing hurtful words directed at us and deal with them as responsible adults? What is okay to say, what isn’t, and who decides? The issue of freedom of speech has never fallen out of prominence in society, but it is especially prevalent today when people are afraid to speak their opinions.
For many, censorship is seen as a way to keep dangerous ideas from those they consider to be innocent, but the very act backfires. Banning books or trying to suppress ideas often makes them more interesting to those who might never have been exposed in the first place. Upon hearing a book is banned or a speaker being protested many will think, “Hmm, this really upsets people, I wonder why,” and will then follow up by trying to find out more.
To protest a speaker and cause a riot that forces the cancellation of an event due to safety concerns not only makes those rioting look bad, but turns those they sought to “protect” toward the very ideas they claim to be so dangerous.
As responsible adults (yeah, I’m implying that you are irresponsible if you don’t act this way), we should know that everyone has a right to their opinion but that others aren’t required to agree with it. Most people will try to hear others out or compromise since it is the polite thing to do, but people place their beliefs at the center of their lives and this causes friction.
This friction often becomes incendiary (pun slightly intended) when those who have the loudest voices aren’t called out on the dissonance between their actions and their rhetoric. Hypocrisy runs rampant in human interaction and paradoxes are inherent in personal liberty and expression. For example; I have every right to play music as loud as I like within my home, just as my neighbor has every right to call the police with a noise complaint. When our individual liberties clash someone must give ground, but that doesn’t negate the fact that everyone has a personal and social responsibility for how they express themselves within society.
The lack of responsibility for our actions lies at the center of why people are so sensitive today. If you believe everyone’s opinion is valid, then you cannot chastise those who disagree with you simply because they disagree. Granted, there are people who shout inflammatory comments in order to rile up those who feel passionately about their beliefs for the fun of it, but they are in the minority.
This may be unpopular to write, but everyone has a right to say what they want; however, if they choose to say mean and hurtful things or to attack other people, then they need to be ready to face the consequences of how those words or actions will be perceived. We want to be able to say how we feel without it affecting others, but our empathy as human beings makes this an impossible task. On the other side of this, people need to understand that though they may be offended by something and their feelings may be justified, that doesn’t mean that the person who offended them owes them anything.
Social media has given everyone a soapbox from which to pontificate and, unfortunately, the most ignorant voices are typically loudest. It is imperative to remember that an opinion is only someone’s expressed belief and shouting it at others doesn’t make it fact.
Now, I realize that “ignorance” is a loaded word in the English language, so I will explain the paradigm within which I use it here. I base my definition off of how my world history teacher in high school explained the lack of knowledge on three levels: stupidity (lacking the ability to understand an idea), ignorance (not knowing an idea due to not having come in prior contact with it but possessing the ability to understand), and rationalized ignorance (knowing and understanding an idea but choosing not to acknowledge its merit through disagreement or intentional disbelief). The last of these three is the most dangerous and what I commonly find among those who misuse the platform of social media.
Human experience is so varied and complicated that to forget this or choose to remain in rationalized ignorance not only wastes our potential as individuals but impedes our ability to function as a society.
The beauty of free speech is that you can disagree with what I have written here and rage against me, but I am not obligated to change my words simply to placate those who disagree. Oftentimes, people will choose to do so in order to maintain public relations or retain constituents (*cough* politicians *cough*), but there is no law in nature that means I have to change the way I feel about something or how I express that feeling to satisfy the emotional needs of someone else.
Free speech is a wonderful thing but can be misused when someone doesn’t understand or care about the responsibility inherent within. Empathy is our greatest weapon in the struggle against sinking into the oblivion of apathy and to actively work to lessen it, or deny its importance, only hurts us all. Say whatever you like, but remember that all actions have consequences.