Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Finding The Balance Between Freedom of Speech and Respecting The Feelings of Others

Let me get one thing straight before we start this...  I am pro free speech.  I believe that we all have a right to be heard, no matter what we're about to say.  I think that the freedom to express ourselves is important and it should be a human right, not a privilege only bestowed upon the lucky.  


...In recent weeks, I've seen more and more evidence of people using their "right to offend" thanks to free speech.  And guess what?  It offends me.

None of us want to live in a Nanny State, in which we're so politically correct that we feel the need to censor our every sentence, lest we anger or upset anyone.  To be forced to live like that would be restrictive and an attack on not only freedom of speech, but the art of debate.  Indeed, those of us lucky enough to live in a country where freedom of speech is a right given to all should exercise that right whenever we choose; there's nothing inherently wrong in doing so.

But what I personally believe is wrong, is when people stubbornly cry "free speech" whenever their words are criticised.  Because, as I've mentioned before on this very blog, self-analysis is key to being a functioning adult in society and frankly, if we're unable to look beyond our own words and actions to see how they might affect others, well that's a sign of arrogance, with a side order of immaturity thrown in for good measure.

Yesterday, a friend posted something on Facebook, asking those who might be thinking of making a fake pregnancy announcement as an April Fool's joke to consider how the "joke" might be taken by anyone who is struggling to conceive or who has lost a baby.  It's a subject close to my heart at the moment, seeing as I'm 31 and single and really rather devastated at the idea that my chance for motherhood might never arrive.  I knew I wouldn't find it funny if someone flippantly declared that they were going to have the one thing I desperately want, only to reveal it was a joke.  But that's not the issue, here...  One of this person's Facebook friends then commented, implying that their freedom to make jokes was being impeded.  They went on to suggest that we should be able to make "rape jokes" and "black jokes."  Later, when I shared the same picture, one of my friends played the "freedom of speech" card too, quoting Stephen Fry's "I am offended by that," Well so fucking what" line.

Now, I respect Stephen Fry enormously.  But I can't tell you how much the "so fucking what" quote pisses me off.  Still, I'm going to try...

You see, the thing about saying "so fucking what" is it instantly suggests that you don't care.  And that's fine on one hand; we're not legally obligated to give a damn about anyone else's feelings, particularly if we believe the person to be upset over something trivial.  But on the other hand, just because we don't share a person's feelings, it doesn't mean that we shouldn't try to understand them.  After all, when we are upset by something, wouldn't we hope that others might at least try to accept our view, even if they don't share it?

Yes, we live in a world in which certain people will take offense to literally anything.  Those people annoy me as much as they annoy Stephen Fry, believe me.  Like I said, I would hate to live in a world in which we had to censor everything we said, lest we upset anyone.  For a start, in that kind of world, being the gobshite I am, I'd be screwed.  And not in a fun way.

But freedom of speech works both ways.  You can't expect to be able to voice your opinions - however contrary - and never accept anyone's right to respond, even if that response is simply "I find that offensive."  Or, to put it another way, I have just as much right to be offended as I have to offend.

When we put our thoughts out into the world, be it in the form of a real-life conversation, a blog, a joke or a simple comment on Facebook or Twitter, we have every right to put them there.  That's what freedom of speech is.  But when we do so without any thought for how those words might affect the listener/reader, we show a lack of compassion that makes me uncomfortable.  Being free to say anything we like shouldn't mean that we do so without a second thought for anyone else.

Would you do a stand up comedy routine at a women's shelter and perform nothing but jokes about domestic abuse?  I love black humour - it's got me through some seriously lousy times in my life - but I sure as HELL wouldn't do that.

It's about respecting other people's feelings, rather than censorship.  When someone says "actually, I find that upsetting," they're perfectly within their rights to do so.  And if we tut and shake our heads and say "pah, political correctness gone mad; I'm just using my freedom of speech and if you don't like it, so fucking what," we're not respecting that person. 

I would have every right to find a Fifty Shades fan forum and leave endless messages, saying what abuse-glorifying, badly written crap the trilogy is.  But I don't do that, because whilst I passionately believe those things and I am very vocal about it, I also respect people's right not to feel that they're being attacked.  

What I'm saying (in a rambly way, hence the title of my blog!) is that whilst freedom of speech is a beautiful, brilliant thing, so is consideration for others.  So when someone says "actually, I don't find that funny and here's why..." perhaps we should listen to them, instead of rolling our eyes.  And when we choose to exercise our right to free speech, we need to accept that those who take offense to our views have just as much right to exercise theirs.

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