According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Many societies have established this right as a law, and in general, they recognize freedom of expression as a human right that needs to be guaranteed in order to call a society free and democratic.
Some of us are lucky to be born in one of those societies, where this human right is guaranteed, to a certain extent at least; and, despite the inherent ethical limitations this law has, such as hate speech or children’s pornography, it has become acceptable to express almost whatever is in our minds and hearts, under the claim that it is our born right to express what we want.
I believe it is without a doubt a right that everyone in the world should be able to enjoy from the moment they are born; but unfortunately, we still live in a time where this is not the norm in many places, be it because of political views, religious beliefs, gender, social class, race, or another classification established by man in regards to freedom privileges. It is a shame that our so called world ‘civilization’ is still struggling with this principle even in its very basic form. It may not be the case of our countries but the presence of this issue elsewhere does affect our world civilization and so it makes all of us accountable for this problem.
However, in those places where this right is already an established norm, where many platforms are offered to us to publicly express what we please, and we are free to say what we want to whoever we want, I feel that it’s being used irresponsibly. Indeed this norm contains some limitations, but in general practice, this right seems to have many blurry lines. It seems like this freedom has become a free pass to mock and offend each other while priding ourselves for exercising this ability. We gave this freedom an individualistic twist, responding to our egocentric desires. We turned it into a tool for oppression defeating its original purpose. And the result: it’s adding more disunity amongst people. In other words, now that enjoying freedom of expression is not an issue for some of us, the issue is what we express. So my main suggestion in the following paragraphs is that we consider that the practice of our personal freedoms must go in harmony with the wellbeing of the whole, and for that, each of us must attempt to express our best selves.
I one aspect, being really free to express who we truly are implies trying to be free from judgment, as judgment is a reflection of our insecurities, our ego, and is not of our conscious selves. When we see or hear something we don’t agree with from someone else, we should view this as an opportunity to teach and learn, not self-righteously, but understanding that each of our views is a result of what we have been exposed to through family, culture, friends, experiences, through inner search and awakening, something we once heard, etc.; and that maybe there’s a greater understanding that we can reach together. I once heard “freedom of expression implies tolerating bigotry”, I think that doesn’t express the whole purpose of this freedom, I think that even though everyone should have the right to express their thoughts, this freedom also implies that it is our right to express our disagreement with them, but our attitude and purpose of expressing our disagreement is what will matter. We can’t go around life just complaining and pointing out at what we don’t agree from each other, that’s not doing anyone any good. And sometimes, if others don’t agree with us, the healthy thing is to let go; it doesn’t qualify as universal freedom anymore if we’re trying to impose our views.
One of the implications of freedom of expression is to tolerate ideas that are different from ours; however, in my opinion, there should be more than to just tolerate one another, the purpose should be to connect and learn from one another, to share knowledge so that we can create more knowledge. Being only tolerant sometimes suggests a conceited attitude and a self-righteous approach; meaning, we are so conformed with our ways that we feel we are being open minded enough by putting up with people who are different from us, whether we interact with them or not. We get so comfortable in that thinking that we don’t allow ourselves to explore and see what positive things we could gain from our differences. So I believe tolerance needs to go by the hand of genuine respect and, even better, by respectful curiosity and openness of mind and heart. And this is where freedom of expression plays an important role, as it is the tool we use to approach others and share thoughts.
This also applies to our freedom to express our perceptions about the traditions of other cultures. I believe in comedy and good sense of humor, using our differences for laughter is fine, but I think it’s irresponsible to use comedy as a way of demeaning others and inciting others to do so as well, like we are world bullies. Our expressions should show that we enjoy our differences and in general they should bring out positive qualities, rather than judging people, stigmatizing them, stereotyping them, ridiculing them and ending up perpetrating more prejudice and hate. We end up adding to society’s categorization tendency, a tendency that is divisive in nature, instead of contributing to unity.
On the other hand, if we say something we should expect people to criticize it, and at the same time we shouldn’t take offense so easily by what others express. Also, I don’t think we should expect to find some spokesperson of our opinion (confirmation from others), nor should we fear that some self-appointed expert will correct us. However, even though in many places we have the legal right to hate and to voice it -which is fine, I believe no one should regulate our thoughts- we should regulate our own thoughts and expressions; there must be a certain level of self-imposed censorship, censorship of what is unfair judging or prejudice, because if freedom of expression is really a freedom, we need to make sure it’s safe.
On some deeper level, I believe that our attitude towards ourselves and our own society has a lot to do with what we express, if we are humble to recognize our strengths and our weaknesses, and those of our society, we will be humble in assisting others to improve too, we will be educating with our expressions like we were educated; if we don’t see our own flaws or are too indulgent with ourselves, we might act self-righteous or hypocritical. Hypocrisy is a very easy flaw to overlook in ourselves.
Regardless of different societies’ interpretation of the limitations of this freedom, which is too complex to get into in this post, my main point here is that we are entitled to our thoughts and feelings, but what makes us civilized responsible humans beings is that we try to orient those thoughts and feelings towards love and unity, those that will shed more light and awareness on our physical, intellectual or spiritual reality; this is the main standard we need. Now that we have achieved this right in the free world, we need to honor it. How else can we call ourselves civilized, if we can’t even exercise such basic principle with respect and consideration of our fellow humans?
So what I suggest is this: that we remember that as much as it is our right to express, it is also our duty to be responsible with this right, meaning to be conscious of not causing harm with it. More so, we should make it our responsibility to ensure that our expressions contribute to the betterment of our society and even of our world civilization.