“Why don’t you just kill yourself slut and save the world a job.”
“If I was your partner, I’d rape MYSELF for being so annoying.”
You can call these statements cruel, ignorant, asinine, evil, malicious and unfair, but you cannot say that someone cannot say them. There’s no punishment for this particular genre of ‘opinion.’ An expression of distaste or disagreement or even hate, within parameters, will not warrant punishment.
Despite this, our right to freedom of speech/expression is not absolute. There are restrictions, which are justified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for the sake of “respect of the rights or reputation of others,” and “the protection of national security or of public order” and “public health or morals.”
Libel, slander, pornography, hate-speech, incitement, copyright violation, trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, right to privacy, public security, public order, public nuisance, campaign finance reform, etc. are all indicators of the fact that people taking the liberty to voice their innermost opinions is not always conducive with living in community.
Within certain contexts, vocalizing our once abstract thoughts and ideas can become dangerous once conceptualized to certain people: verbal abuse plays on the insecurities of someone already contemplating suicide; slandering a man’s name ruins his career; telling an unfriendly country your nuclear codes ends in disaster… we can all acknowledge that there’s reason for the instated limitations on free speech.
And yet, it all seems to fade into unawareness here, on the internet.
One afternoon, with blazing self-righteousness and a tone that might be described as ‘patronizingly simple,’ l told a particularly vicious commenter that their words could really hurt people and that they didn’t need to be so mean.
The reply I got was, “welcome to the internet, ya little bitch.”
Yeah, I laughed too.
The point is not whether people should have thicker skins or learn to live in a world that isn’t kind – these things are actions to shield from the cause, the people who are using their screens as their psychological projective punching bags.
The most relevant question then, is not whether you should say whatever’s on your mind; it’s why you choose to express it. I mean, I understand how the internet facilitates comments that in live interactions would be considered hurtful or illegal (I think it has to do with access, ease, anonymity and perceived distance). But the question I’m asking is, why?
So the ‘why’ I want to ask isn’t “why does the internet facilitate people expressing themselves in ways that hurt others?” that’s too general. The “why” I’d like to ask is “why do you use your right to free speech carelessly?”
A quick aside here.
Some people comment specifically to troll. The get pleasure out goading or hurting others. This article does not refer to them. Trolls are a different breed who aim to disrupt and hurt and there’s even evidence to show that they share key traits with clinically diagnosed narcissists, psychopaths and sadists.
So when I ask why, I’m asking people like you and me who feel like they are expressing a feeling – not necessarily to disrupt a discussion or hurt someone else – but simply because they feel the drive to express it.
It’s worth noting here that I’ve also found myself saying things in comments sections that are heated or more confrontational than what I do face-to-face.
Sure, face-to-face, I’ll express my opinion others, but it’s rare that I’ll directly say something derogatory or rude. I’ll certainly tell my partner how much of an ignorant bastard I thought a guy at work was, but it’s rare that I’ll actually tell someone face-to-face that they’re an ignorant bastard.
Somehow, it seems unproductive.
But I have done things like this in a comments section – called people ignorant or mean or insecure or sexist. I’m sure this means I’ve got my own thinking to do and that thinking will probably revolve around whether I’m a coward, whether I’m overly accommodating or whether I need to live a little bit more consistently in regards to my beliefs.
But where does your self-reflection lead? Why is it that you express yourself in ways that you don’t in real life? And what do you get out of it? Don’t think about the how, think about the why.
I think if these questions are engaged, and engaged with others in mind, it will lead people having a more fulfilling experience of life. By simply connecting with the fact that we are using the internet’s distance and anonymity to facilitate some base desire to fight or defend, hopefully we can see that, not only is it pointless, but it makes our lives worse for it. On balance, we’re unhappier, more disconnected, lonelier. I simply can’t imagine that these acts of silent, anonymous aggression are any less harmful to humanity or our individual psyches.
So please, let’s do more than express an opinion because you’re allowed to. Let’s aim for a higher standard than that. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which codifies our right to free expression also says that with our right of freedom expression comes “special duties and responsibilities”.
I challenge you to accept that responsibility. In day-to-day interactions, the limits of our free speech are legislated. But the internet is different – here we largely have to self-regulate and determine what’s useful ourselves. So Instead of having a thought and just expressing it, think about the possible consequences of it. Even if you don’t care whether what you’re saying will have a moral consequence, is it even providing a use to anyone but yourself?