Freedom of speech/expression is the mantra of our times. Everywhere and anywhere somebody is either using it or violating it or abusing it or getting upset by it. People are debating about it, fighting over it and even getting arrested for it. Suddenly it is being held aloft as the most coveted possession of a democratic state and as something to be safeguarded at all costs. Some, who exercise it, take a moral high ground and feel offended if they are stopped from exercising it or are blamed for excesses. News channels, often blamed for excess, are the new self-proclaimed champions of ‘Freedom of speech’; most appear to know the constitution inside out and take a moral high ground on related matters. Also thanks to social networking sites, many more unlikely champions have emerged and gain some following as well.
What is freedom of speech? Is it really a hallmark of democracy as it is made out to be? Are my rights violated when I am not allowed to express? What if somebody gets emotionally hurt or insulted because of my right of freedom of speech?
Let us look back at our day to day lives. Do we really ever feel at any stage that we cannot express what we want to express? Whether it is our coffee shop/tea stall casual chat or living room casual discussion or dinner table discussion – do we really feel that for some reason we are not free to express what we want to say? I am sure I don’t have to answer these rhetoric questions. I have been to China and have many Chinese friends; did I in any interaction feel they were not free to express what they wanted to say? No! On the contrary they were quite expressive. Expressive to the extent of telling me their view points about the Cultural Revolution and the student uprising at Tiananmen Square, not a hint of stifled freedom of speech. So our fundamental right as a human being without having to follow a constitutional diktat seems to be intact. Ofcourse nobody can deny that, there is certain amount of self-policing, at times voluntarily, to avoid hurting sentiments of people who we are expressing our views to. Nonetheless, we all, no matter where we are born, are free to speak! So the question repeats again – what is freedom of speech that we are breaking our head over?
Now imagine if any of the opinions expressed by us in a private conversation was to find its way to a publicly accessible forum/medium! Suddenly do we feel our heart stop or we stopping in our stride? I think herein could lie the true definition of Freedom of Speech. Are all the opinions expressed in private conversation ok to be expressed in a publicly accessible forum? Would we express everything in public what we say in private? In expressing our opinion in public we always run the risk of saying something that is unacceptable to some. These are the things that test the tolerance level and also expose hypocrisy of a society. Thus I feel that, Freedom of speech exists in all countries irrespective of the form of governance it has; the main issue is of tolerance and double standards.
What one feels is what one should say. If done in a private conversation nobody bothers. If done in a public forum then the said word has repercussions. Tolerance level of the society decides the threshold; beyond that point it could be considered as deliberate attempt to spread vile and hatred. However not saying what I feel about things and instead to say what would be widely accepted on a public forum exposes the double standard and hypocrisy in a society. It is a fight between Tolerance level and Double Standards. In case of a non-democratic Government Tolerance levels are very low and double standards extremely high. In the case of a perfect democracy Tolerance levels are very high and double standards very low. Most of the countries are, obviously, between these two extremes.
Social networking sites present a new type of dilemma. They are private yet they are public, they are public yet they are private. These sites are neither in the mold of a traditional public forum nor are they equivalent to roadside tea stalls/coffee shops. Expressed opinions here are private, yet are public. With plenty of government organization/officials joining such sites in official capacity, makes the medium that much more interesting. Opinions expressed on such sites with the type of following they command can, theoretically, lead to instantaneous repercussions and at times to immediate backlash on the expresser of the opinion. Everybody ofcourse is free to express their opinion, however the medium is so unprecedented and the repercussions so much unstudied that there is an apprehension. The dilemmatic nature of the medium doesn’t make it any easier either. So the dilemma has led to lowering of tolerance levels fortunately though, it has not led to increase in double standards. On the contrary it has brought it down by an extent. As the medium matures and repercussions become clearer, I am sure, certain amount of self-policing would come in. As has happened in a personal one-to-one conversations.
I should also mention that achieving a balance between Tolerance levels and Double Standard cannot be a matter of chance nor can it be achieved overnight. It has to be deliberate and would be a slow and steady process.