After a tiring day of working from home, you feel like taking rest. The word ‘rest’ has now metamorphosed into switching from one screen to the another. In this case, from that boring zoom- meeting to social media. What do we have there waiting to punch us in the face like a jack in the box? The troubles of trivial, sometimes offensive comments from individuals who are exercising their ‘freedom of expression’ in an altogether different context.
Cyberbullying, news on cyberbullying, slandering in the form of criticism, defamation wonderfully constructed under the veil of roasting. You name it.
All these reminisced bits of the past, find its way into the modern world through the minds of the half knowledged resting peacefully behind their 4-inch screen. This made me wonder about what freedom of expression or speech means.
What it means to me, us, and what it should mean. Let’s reconsider them one by one.
What is freedom of speech or expression?
According to article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India, freedom of speech and expression enables an individual to openly share his or her views with some reasonable restrictions. It upholds the liberty of thought and expression principle provided in the Preamble. The International Declaration of Human Rights states that the freedom to express opinions is a basic human right.
I’m taking you back to those times when sedition laws existed where even your views were censored if it fostered thoughts on Independence or nationalist feelings. Behind the success of drafting this law lies the immense courage and sufferings of patriots.
“Reasonable Restriction” is an idea well put by the Constitution. Freedom to express your thoughts does come with restrictions too, but not like those restrictions that the Colonial Government puts that somehow makes the law invalid. The word ‘restriction’ is preceded by ‘reasonable’. It’s interesting to note that this word, at first glance, seems very concrete and has its transience.
What is reasonable for me might not be reasonable for you. What is reasonable for the masses doesn’t always have to be reasonable on the larger front. It’s this confusion and distortion of the word or idea that leads to a shaky foundation.
According to the Human Rights Commission, the curbing of freedom of speech is lawful, necessary, and proportionate if it is to:
- Protect national security, territorial integrity (the borders of the state) or public safety
- Prevent disorder or crime
- Protect health or morals
- Protect the rights and reputations of other people
- Prevent the disclosure of information received in confidence
- Maintain the authority and impartiality of judges
(Source: Equality and Human Rights Commission)
Of course, we all would have our fair share of doubts after reading these restrictions, because fighting for our rights might seem like being anti-national. Here again the word ‘reasonable’ should be kept in mind. What might seem reasonable to some individuals might not appeal to the rest.
What we have seen above is a more academic sort of definition. The recent events made me ponder about what freedom of expression means to me. As an individual who likes to learn more and has an opinion, I’m often caught between this dilemma of being right or wrong. The law has given me an opportunity to express my views on many socio-political issues. People around me have the power too. This power clubbed with differing ideologies leads to contrasting opinions. In the age where we are focusing on learning and unlearning things, we are mostly unsure about what is right and what is wrong.
Hence, I’m always troubled and often perplexed about putting my views in the public domain (I’m sure it happens to most of us) . I believe that expressing your opinions aloud should come with a deep sense of morality and the will to accept our mistakes if any. Even while writing this article, sitting peacefully in my room wearing my pjs, might trigger a massive comment section with people who differ in my opinion.
This sense of morality (I should say that the term morality also has individualistic influences) is depreciating now amongst some people on the internet. The right to express has become an instrument that people use to toy with the emotions of others. You might say that it’s criticism and that we are obliged to listen to it but most of the time, it’s slandering disguised as criticism and normalised jokes.
We witness many incidents where an individual has to undergo cyberbullying for being their unapologetic self, for expressing their views on a sensational issue, or even on personal choices they took on their own which others don’t have the right to interfere with. Poisonous darts of homophobia, body shaming, misogyny, misandry, and other common jargons that we are accustomed to are fired at them. Sometimes, these come in the form of jokes that are meant to pacify the effect they have on us. Certain DMs and comments even make us question the high level of literacy rate that we boast of.
It isn’t always about ‘ammayis’ ‘online angalamars’ or even ‘kulasthrees’ , sometimes these poisonous darts even come from personalities who have taken the pill of ‘readymade wokeness’ and have the privilege to unlearn.
This reminds me of a recent conversation I had with one of my acquaintance who was talking about the #womenhavelegs movement. He made a comment (in a very decent manner) where he suggested that criticisms are obvious and can’t be escaped from, that individuals should have considered the implications of their act before posting an image. Some of you would’ve gotten cringed by the statement (I did too), however, I tried to understand where this notion arises from and how I can give him a new perspective. Finally, after discussing ‘personal choice’, ‘moral policing’, and our position before giving a piece of unsolicited advice, we came to the conclusion that it’s his patriarchal, orthodox background that makes it difficult for him to understand the credibility of personal choice.
As Benyamin rightly said in his novel Aadujeevitham “ Naam anubhavikkatha jeevithangal namukku kettukathakal ayi thonnum”, it’s difficult understand the logic behind certain things when you are conditioned from childhood about it being wrong. We do have good news, we can always unlearn certain things, no matter how old we are. I know it’s not an easy task but not impossible.
We need more conversations between people with differing opinions (given that either party is willing to listen) where we discuss the credibility of our arguments studded with facts, where we try to put our thoughts across without offending the other.
How to put your thoughts across without offending the other?
- Don’t say things that you think are going to offend the other person. Yes, it’s pretty simple and the most violated one. The freedom of expression law doesn’t give the right to put your hate speech across or any thoughts that might question the personal choice or legal rights of an individual.
- Keep your anger aside.
- Communication is the key. Educate if needed instead of blaming or forcing.
- Make sure to use the right words. Using jargons like ‘mansplaining’, ‘gaslighting’ or such terms without proper context can be triggering.
- Understand and accept. Sometimes you gotta be in the other person’s shoes.
There is a thin line between expressing your opinions freely and hate speech. The 5 points mentioned above might not work when a person is not willing to listen. Also, each encounter of issues on freedom of expression differs, sometimes we’ve got to look at it in black and white and sometimes, we’ve got to look at the greys too.
Let’s learn and unlearn!