Freedom, in all its forms, is a universal value. No one would want to lose the right to be free.
But, like everything in life, freedom is not absolute.
Just because I can move and walk freely doesn’t mean I’m free to go wherever I want whenever I want. I can’t barge into a neighbor’s house on a whim. I can’t use my hands to hurt other people, or to steal their possessions. If I do, I’ll go to jail.
We live in a world that, for the most part, is bound by laws. We can’t hurt each other and use freedom as an excuse. We are free—if we cause no harm.
When it comes to freedom of expression, things get confusing.
We want to feel that we’re free to express our views, without fear of persecution.
We can, however, say that freedom of speech, as a form of freedom, is not absolute. There should be limits to what one can say. We shouldn’t cause harm with our point of view.
We all know that words can hurt deeply. And we all have different sensibilities. Do we need to legislate not hurting feelings?
No, I don’t think enacting laws—that are usually subjective and politically motivated—is the answer.
The answer lies in understanding freedom holistically.
Freedom in context
When it comes to freedom, the following two constraints are always present—even if we choose to ignore them.
In most countries, you’re free to drink alcohol. But you should drink responsibly. You shouldn’t drink and drive, or take out your drunkenness on others. The same is true for words. We can’t take out our frustration on others because we’re free to say something.
We don’t need to censor our words, but we need to take full responsibility for them.
People say hateful things when they know fair well they can do so without suffering any immediate negative consequences.
Most likely, the same insults that are spoken to a person of color, an immigrant, or a person of a certain faith, wouldn’t be said to someone’s boss—unless the person wins the lottery and quits.
What if the situation changes and power shifts? In most cases, the person in a position of perceived power and privilege won’t think of this possibility.
Ignoring the consequences is not only unhelpful, but also damaging to the message. Using abusive language won’t validate our point of view. The opposite will happen; the main point will be lost in all the chaos of hate.
Now let’s consider the simplest way to express ourselves effectively, keeping the above points in mind.
The five-year-old free speech strategy
If we’re not sure how freedom of speech works, we can use the following questions that a five-year-old can answer.
- How would I feel if someone said this about me, or about someone I care about?
- Am I being nice, or mean in saying what I’m saying?
- Can I go play instead of saying something?
In adult speak, the questions can be reworded to:
- What would happen if the tables turned and I’m on the receiving end of these words?
- Am I respectful of others when expressing my views?
- Can I let go of wanting to express an opinion, and do something more helpful?
The questions are meant to remind us of the responsibility and consequences of our words, and more importantly, the importance of an issue and the need to express an opinion.
The strategy in action
The above questions can be turned into action steps when we have the urge to say something. But we’ll do it in reverse.
1 - Prioritize your opinions. Think first of how important an issue is to you. What would happen if you didn’t say anything? This step provides the first pause between the situation and our reaction.
2 - Consider the consequences. What’s the best, and worst, things that could happen if you say what you want to say? This step provides another pause.
3 - Communicate responsibly. Say what needs to be said respectfully. This step will edit how we express our point of view.
All the above is basic common sense. But it’s not what we do. Why? Because we’re reactive emotional creatures. When emotions are running high, it’s easy for the ego to get defensive and fire the first thing that comes to mind.
And the interesting environment we live in makes things even harder.
We have unprecedented access to information and misinformation at the same time. If we add our own beliefs and biases to the mix, we can see how any issue can be manipulated and polarized quickly.
But instead of worrying about it, we can learn to become more discerning and step out of emotional reactivity. We can choose to keep it simple, and be kind and respectful with our actions and words.