More thoughts on Freedom of Speech

Picture the scene. You’re walking down the street, minding your own business, possibly chatting with a friend, when along comes someone who decides (for whatever reason) to start giving you crap. They’re being plain nasty and abusive, shouting and screaming at you for whatever arbitrary reason has come to mind.

Obviously you’re not minded to tolerate this behaviour, and why should you? In a public place, you can rightly call the police and have them deal with the offending individual. If you work in a store, you can have that person banned from the store for unreasonable behaviour.

The bottom line is, how you conduct yourself in public is a matter of choice, within certain boundaries. You have the right to speak openly and discuss things in a reasonable manner. You don’t have the right to be abusive toward anyone and expect there to be no consequences. Why therefore, is there such an outcry that similar behaviour online should be treated the same way?

The trending hashtag on Twitter, #Istandwithhatespeech, has highlighted the curious attitude we have as a society toward behaviour online. It’s as though we’ve built a partition between our real world behaviour and our online personas. I’ll freely admit to being guilty of this sometimes – I think we all are – but some people take this further than others, delving into hurtful behaviour online that they wouldn’t dare indulge in out in the real world.

I can’t emphasise this enough – if you believe in freedom of speech then you accept responsibility for it too. It isn’t a free licence to be obnoxious and abusive, and this includes the online world. If you want to be invited to take part in adult conversation then you can behave like one.

Let’s also draw a distinction here. The new rules governing what constitutes hate speech on sites like Facebook are less to do with statements like ‘I hate religion X’ and more to do with bullying. To be clear, bullying doesn’t have to be blatant insults. It can also be subtle. It can be insidious, and it would not be condoned or excused in real life, so why online? My view is that if we were more capable of acting reasonably, rules to regulate our behaviour wouldn’t even be necessary. Unfortunately we have demonstrated time and time again that we’re not able to do this, so now it’s time for those who behave like trolls to reap what they’ve sown.


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