Fundamental human rights make us think about the freedom that we can experience in a democratic society. When we reason in terms of rights granted to us unconditionally at birth – valid for countries that comply with the principles stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – we often think of them as absolute and forget to consider that all these liberties come with an implied call to responsibility when asserting them.
The Freedom of Opinion and Expression is one such right. Broadly, it refers to the fact that we can hold any opinion and that we can express it freely. Some think that this can be translated simply as the right to say whatever we want, whenever we want, regardless of context and effects. But is this expectation valid? Is there no such thing as a limit to free speech?
I will share a selection of my observations and conclusions on the topic, below.
THE LIMIT OF FREE SPEECH
While the part about “freedom of opinion” is rather straightforward – “I can think whatever I want about whatever I want whenever I want” -, and a limitation to it would be similar to the thought police, I believe that the “freedom of expression” segment supports more nuances, some of which may offer clues into where this liberty may stop for an individual.
I like to analyze such contexts primarily through a lens made of assertive principles, meaning a set of non-passive and non-aggressive principles, conventions, and guidelines.
Applied to the freedom of speech, as part of freedom of expression, assertive principles can highlight the points where a person’s rights meet the rights of others and may guide the action to be taken in such circumstances.
Here are some of my observations and conclusions, based on this type of examination:
- Individual freedoms do not exist in social isolation. They are put in place to regulate the interaction of people, to ensure equity, and to mediate conflict. Therefore, human rights cannot be thought of as absolute since they will always encounter or bump into the rights of others, thus being limited by them.
- Freedom of Speech, alone or together with a supporting behavior used by the person to express themselves, may interfere with another person’s rights in a variety of forms, but while many of those contexts may be considered indirect effects of what someone says, verbal abuse and harassment are direct consequences of its manifestation.
- The “There is no such thing as verbal abuse” crowd. Some people, among which some distinguished scholars, believe that there is no such thing as verbal abuse. Words, they argue, on their own, cannot harm a person. And it is the other person’s responsibility to deal with the emotional effects. And I agree, in general, with this part, the “Grow up and deal with criticism, both justified and unjustified.” But I think this is a reductionist perspective that only considers things in isolation: two parties and what they may say to each other. But in real life, things are more complex, and that is what allows verbal abuse to exist as a distinct form of aggression. Imagine a child being yelled at all day long, bullying that may come from peers or, worse, from his or her own family. Sure, we may say, the kid needs to toughen up and learn not to give a damn about these things. But what if the words are part of a physical context that they cannot escape? A 7-year-old child won’t pack his things and leave their parents’ home saying, “That’s it, I’ve had enough of you, I’m out.” Same for a spouse whose mental state shaped by abuse won’t allow them to see a way out of the context they are in. When you cannot escape them, words become abuse.
- How can you tell the limit has been crossed? From my perspective, there is an easy answer to this question: if a person cannot escape your words or if you cannot escape another person’s words, the line that marks the other person’s rights or yours has been crossed. Consider this example: A person can call me whatever they want online, in a publication, in their own home, etc. That is them exercising their freedom to opinion and freedom of speech. Fine. In those situations, I can turn those messages off: mute and block on social media, I can choose to stop reading the publication, and if they insult me in their own home, I probably should stop responding positively to those invites or stop listening to the gossip linked to those gatherings. However, if they would show up every day at my door, insulting me or, funny enough, just to tell me how much they appreciate me, then that would soon turn into harassment. That is still them exercising their right to opinion and expression, but they would be interfering with my right to live a peaceful life. One may argue that it’s not the words that directly cause the harassment in this case, but the supporting behavior – Fair enough, but words are part of the way in which a person is expressing their opinions and feelings.
- Verbal instigation is abuse. Direct instigation to violence or targeted harassment toward an individual or group is a severe form of verbal abuse. It’s one of the worst ways in which you can use your words. Expression of opinion is different from verbal calls to action. “I hate X.” is different from “Let’s eliminate X,” whatever X may stand for – a group of people, an idea, etc. Trying to make the world fit your own perspective of a perfect environment by forcing others to comply with your expectation is highly aggressive behavior.
THE RIGHT TO OFFEND
- Does Freedom of Speech include The Right To Offend? Yes, I absolutely believe that. I should be able to say things that you do not like, even about you or the things you love dearly. Why? Because you can escape my words when I do that. And because dealing with things that upset you is your responsibility, not mine. If we were to eliminate the right to offend, no significant speech would remain. We all have subjects that we find highly triggering. If we would all demand the elimination of those portions of public discussion, we would mainly have to remain silent. A regulating social response to inappropriate use of one’s freedom when it comes to speech might mean limited attention given to those manifestations. A socially curated verbal environment, the sole punishment being a disappearing audience.
INDIVIDUAL AND SOCIAL IMPLICATIONS
- Speech shouldn’t be fundamentally regulated. Ever. Structural and style conventions may assist some contexts but fundamental regulations regarding what a person may or may not say, or even worse, what they should or shouldn’t say – implying punishment, have no place in a democratic society. In the end, I should be able to say whatever it is that I want to say, regardless of the indirect impact on others – the only rule being that, as I mentioned above, they should have a way to escape my words. Silence me by turning your head in the other direction, by leaving, by muting, or by hitting the block button, not by oppression. Verbal abuse, harassment, and instigation to violent acts against others should be punished because they create a context that endangers the security, as well as the physical and mental well-being of the target.
- We should use our freedoms with responsibility in mind. Don’t infringe the rights of others, and you’re as free as you want and deserve to be.