“I reserve the right to say whatever I want!” : freedom of expression and the responsibilities that come with it

The freedom of expression is something that Western people in particular like to trumpet, especially on the Internet. The view that this is an irrevocable right is captured in cliched expressions such as “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”. I contend, however, that the ignorance of the power of words is, at best, wishful thinking. At worst, it can be fatal.

Words can hurt, in more ways than one.

One thing that really frustrates me, particularly with regards to a certain anime forum I frequent, are people who like to ‘bash’ others. The criticism I often see ranges from labeling creators who follow their own visions and approaches as trolls to putting others down for interpretations that contradict their own. Their targets might be distant and thus arguably unaffected by such, arguably unwarranted criticism – actors, directors and the like. Or they might be much closer, in the form of ‘big-name fans’ or even the average forum-goer who just wants to ask an innocent question or add their own, mild views to a discussion.

What these people do not seem to realise is that the pen can, indeed, be mightier than the sword. That little jibe about someone else’s favourite character can sting and make that person resentful, and the accumulation of that resentment can lead to retaliation. That disgruntled dismissal of a creator as a troll can lead to the use of that label snowballing and obscuring the creator’s vision, simply because some extremely vocal viewers want things done their way. A callous or rude remark might drive a new forum-goer away. And a vicious rumour can lead to an immensely tragic outcome.

The issue at hand is that most people forget that rights are not absolute. They simply cannot be. For example, you can swing your hands as vigourously as you want when walking…but not if you hit other people in the process. Similarly, people should keep in mind that freedom of expression comes with the responsibility of making sure that what they say does not hurt others. Defamation laws exist for good reason, but they are largely ineffective in this digital era, where information now moves at unbelievable speed. Confidentiality agreements and diplomatic secrecy are matters of security, be it corporate or national and international. And on a far simpler level, there are expressions that one really should not use in addressing someone else, such as cussing. It really is up to each individual to be aware of what they say and the consequences it might have.

But of course, the right of freedom of expression is not the only right to which accompanying responsibilities apply. Whilst the voices are small compared to those trumpeting on rights, they exist.

In conclusion, this writer sums it up perfectly:

Privileges come with obligations.
Rights come with responsibilities.

And the right of freedom of expression is no exception.

About karice
MAG fan, freelance translator and political scientist-in-training. I also love musicals, travel and figure skating!

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