A word I see being bandied about a lot lately is ‘freedom’; freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom to exercise our God-given rights, and so on.
Like me, you’ve probably heard the word freedom used by some political figures as a subtle linguistic code to their particular brand of supporters. In some instances the code loosely translates to ‘freedom’ from gun restriction laws, ‘freedom’ from foreign bureaucracies, and even ‘freedom’ from co-existence with ethnic minorities.
Freedom, which always seemed to me to be a good thing to aspire to – after all, didn’t some of our ancestors go through all manner of hell to acquire theirs? – has been taking on a rather shady, almost threatening, tinge of late.
It seems to me that we hear a great deal about our freedom and our rights and rather less about our responsibilities. There’s no shortage of those who assert our freedom to drink as much as we want, to eat as much as we like, and to do as we wish with our bodies and our minds. But how much do we hear about the responsibilities we have to each other, to our society and indeed, to our planet? The responsibilities captured in that hauntingly beautiful word ‘ubuntu’ that encapsulates our interconnectedness as fellow humans and the idea that I am because you are?
From my utopian mountain top, let me touch on one aspect of freedom that I find particularly jarring. Despite all the good that internet technology brings, one of the most depressing manifestations of our freedom is the increasingly vitriolic and hate-filled language that swirls through our online universe. I know I’m not the only one who sometimes spends more time reading the comments on news or information articles than I probably spent on reading the item itself. Occasionally comments are informative and add a new dimension to the piece; sometimes they can even be humorous. But more and more, it seems to me, people appear almost compelled to react to news, to events, and to each other with the most mean-spirited vitriol imaginable.
The internet, combined with celebrity culture, has given us the means to spy on the lives of the rich and famous and, it seems, the opportunity to unleash unbridled envy and even rage that some people seem to have what others don’t. Never mind that in most cases the individuals involved worked damned hard to make said fortune; the fact that we can see them spending and enjoying their money seems to be more than some people can bear.
Nothing is sacred for the troll patrol; race, religion, celebrations, tragedies; even news reports on the funerals of the high-profile can elicit comments maligning the departed, questioning the genuine nature of the emotion displayed by the bereaved and even critiquing whether the clothing worn was appropriate. Sometimes comments can be so specific in their judgement that you could be forgiven for assuming that the person commenting knows the subject of his or her abuse personally; surely such vitriol can’t simply be the result of reading a relatively harmless piece of gossip?
Why does any of this matter? Shouldn’t we be old enough to shrug off petty criticism from internet trolls and move on with our lives? Aside from the terrifying thought that these same people walk – yes – freely among us, should we really be worried? Sticks and stones can break our bones, but surely words can never really harm us?
If only that were so. It matters because the truth is that words are powerful; they can build and they can break. They can recruit us to hate, envy and despise or they can inspire us to rise and serve. Words can bring out the very best in our hearts or reveal the very worst lurking in our souls.
Negative words that mean little to the envious mind tapping on a keyboard in isolated hate can impact the joy and esteem of those who are more vulnerable and less able to shrug off the bile. We have all heard of instances where young people have been driven to self-harm or even taken their lives after being hounded and vilified online.
So what is freedom worth if it creates a society that is worse rather than better? What good is it when that noble state that we should all enjoy instead becomes a yoke that we hang on others? Where should our freedom stop and the demands of decency and common sense start? Because although freedom gives us the right to say what we like; sometimes wisdom should tell us not to.
When the psychology of social media, which is intended to create online communities, is instead used by some to pit us against each other, when freedom of debate degenerates into unfiltered taunts, violent emojis and insults, what are we allowing ourselves to become? It’s a question that the Reverend Dr Jo Bailey Wells who was recently named the new Bishop of Dorking addressed when she noted that “Part of the culture is that we now tweet and blog before we speak and think. Cyberspace, the blogosphere, has encouraged that kind of behaviour and I think I want to stand against that.”
If you are also finding this phenomenon disturbing, I wonder if you would care to join me in adopting some rules of engagement in the use of our online freedom? Here are a few of my suggestions for starters:
- I am only free to say online whatever I would be comfortable saying directly in front of the person I am referring to
- I am not free to comment on any article or observation online unless I can do so respectfully and with courtesy
- I am not free to ‘like’ anything on social media unless it is something that I would be happy to have written or said myself
- I will recognise that my freedom of action extends only to the boundaries of yours. So, for example, if I’m free to smoke a cigarette, I can do so only until my smoking impacts on your freedom to breathe clean air
- My freedom of thought remains absolute, but I will limit my freedom of speech to what will not hurt or injure your feelings.
Frances Williams: Editor of ReConnect Africa and CEO of Interims for Development.
IMAGE CREDITS: https://simplygospel.files.wordpress.com