WHERE IS THE LINE BETWEEN FREE EXPRESSION AND OFFENSIVE SPEACH, AND DOES IT EVEN MATTER? …
What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.
â Salman Rushdie
I am a long-time supporter of beBee USA. I believe that it has the potential to become the world's premier social media networking and digital self-publishing platform, and I have been outspoken in its promotion and defense. ("Rival Blogging Platforms: beBee Enters the Fray")
However, I am not a beBee "fan" — in the sense that I do not identify so closely with beBee ownership and management that I am moved to take umbrage when someone criticizes the platform or the members of what we all like to think of as the beBee community.
For although I recently accepted a designation as a beBee "Brand Ambassador", I am not so starry-eyed over being such that I feel bound to swarm to the defense of the platform's perceived honor, whenever someone chooses to denigrate it, whether justifiably or otherwise. Especially when such a defensive swarm takes on the flavor of mob action.
For more than a few decades, I've remained stubbornly committed to the principles of free speech and expression. And I try — really hard and especially as a writer — to maintain that commitment, even when I read things with which I vehemently disagree.
One of the main reasons I've been so strongly attracted to beBee as a networking and self-publishing platform is that it is much more open and tolerant of a wide variety of opinion and styles than most competing platforms — in particular, LinkedIn where users are constantly told by other users that certain forms of expression are "not professional" or "too political" or "unacceptably disruptive."
Consequently, I was dismayed recently to witness an acrimonious exchange on a user's post (call him Author X) and what seemed to me to be an ensuing foray into the territory of censorship and the restriction of free expression.
Everyone is in favor of free speech … but some people's idea of it is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.
— Winston S. Churchill
For me, the most disturbing aspect of the situation in question was that it occurred on Author X's post, not on the post of any of those who disagreed with him and who eventually banded together to report and ask for the deletion of his comments from the discussion thread.
Let's be very clear. I personally disagreed with a number of the assertions made by Author X in his post, and with several of the points that he made in reply to comments in the discussion thread. I especially took exception to what appeared to me to be his intentionally provocative stance and haughty and arrogant manner of expression.
However, keep in mind that, in this particular case, Author X did not 1) enter the comments thread on another author's post and 2) was, in the main, answering criticisms made in the comments thread of his post. The upshot is that Author X was not disrupting anyone else's conversation, other than his own.
And as far as I could tell, the sum-total of the substance of the complaints echoed by members of the mob that formed was, to quote from another context a writer-friend of mine and fellow Beezer, Kevin Pashuk,
The complaints are on the order of, "He started it by striking back, when I hit him …
— Kevin Pashuk on beBee
Which is a pretty good fit for what happened in the case in question. question.
Author X made what some people readers felt were unfair and derogatory remarks about beBee and some of its Brand Ambassadors. In response, a slew of people jumped onto their high horses and headed into verbal battle in defense of beBee's honor. And they were met in return with, by any reasonable standard, a volley of provocative and insulting replies.
Now, we can discuss ad infinitum what constitutes an abusive statement and what does not. And we can debate how many people need to dance on the head of an I'm-offended pin before a "higher power" needs to step in. But that would be to miss my point entirely.
My point is that, when we're talking about freedom of expression, it doesn't matter how verbally abusive the statements in question may or may not be. For it is only when we are dealing with speech that we detest or find exceedingly offensive, that we need to worry about protecting freedom of expression.
It's now very common to hear people say, "I'm rather offended by that." As if that gives them certain rights. It's actually nothing more… than a whine. "I find that offensive" … has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. "I am offended by that." Well, so fucking what…
— Stephen Fry writing in the Guardian
I suggest to you that a person is "abusive" on social media when he or she :
a) Posts a comment on another's article that aggressively seeks to attack the author of the article personally, or
b) Repeatedly posts comments on the articles of others, which comments are clearly intended to be disruptive, and refuses to cease and desist when asked to do so, or
c) Posts statement or comments that exemplify prejudice and hate, and which are derogatory and defamatory in respect of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical attributes, or mental disabilities.
But a person is not abusive when he or she says or publishes statements that we simply don't like or which make us personally uncomfortable or with which we strongly disagree.
And I suggest to you that the way to deal with people whom we find unpleasant, but who do not cross the line into genuinely abusive rhetoric or disruptive action on social media, is simply to ignore them, their posts, and their comments. (See my previously published "On the Limits of Free Expression")
That someone has the right to do a thing does not mean it is the right thing to do…
â G.K. Chesterton
Understand that I am not in any way defending Author X. In fact, what I saw in his end of the exchange was a deliberate provocation, with, I believe, the goal of eliciting precisely the response that ensued, all in the service of proving a point about beBee and its team boosters.
It is both unfortunate and ironic that Author X got exactly what he was looking for and what he felt he needed in order to make his point.
Without a doubt, some people seem driven on social media to repeatedly cross over the boundaries of civil conversation. Indeed, some appear to enjoy picking fights. But the goal for the rest of us needs to be to strike a balance in our response.
When the rhetoric gets rough, and the exchange becomes essentially nasty, that is not the time to respond with a team (read "mob") mentality. It is not the time to seek to quash an "opponent's" right to free expression. Rather, it is a time to take a deep breath and recommit ourselves to protecting free speech and expression.
To do anything less, especially to fall into a group or mob mentality in such matters is to set a dangerous precedent. Since who is to say when the "team" might change its collective mind about what is and what is not acceptable and decide to quash your — or my — right to free expression? — Phil Friedman
Postscript: BeBee CEO, Javier Camara Rica, has numerous time said that there is a place for everyone on beBee. As I and another writer-friend of mine, Jim Able, can attest, beBee practices what Javier preaches. (See, for example, "Floats Like a Butterfly, and When It Counts… Stings Like a Bee")
BeBee has to date been imbued with a high level of tolerance and respect for differing, sometimes even alien modes of expression. It is beBee's strength and, I might add, its distinguishing characteristic and main hope for eventual predominance on the social media field of combat.
My sincere hope is that, in our enthusiasm for all that is good and great about beBee, we do not inadvertently undermine what is beeing accomplished. And I invite you to join me in a conscious effort to avoid falling into an intolerance born of enthusiasm, one that leads us to tar and feather those who break with the perceived party line.— PLF
Author's Notes: If you found this post interesting and worthwhile and would like to receive notifications of my writings on a regular basis, click the [FOLLOW] button on my beBee profile. Better yet, elect there to follow my blog by email. As a writer-friend of mine says, you can always change your mind later.
Should you be curious about some of my other writings on social media, you're invited to take a look at the following:
"On Trees, Trolls, Trust and Truth"
"Self-Ascription, Self-Certification, and Snake Oil"
"BeBee vs beBee: Differentiation Thru Conversation"
Please feel free to "like" and "share" this post and my other articles — whether on beBee, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, provided only that you credit me properly as the author, and include a live link to my original post.
About me, Phil Friedman: With 30 some years background in the marine industry, I've worn numerous hats — as a yacht designer, boat builder, marine operations and business manager, marine industry consultant, marine marketing and communications specialist, yachting magazine writer and editor, yacht surveyor, and marine industry educator. I am also trained and experienced in interest-based negotiation and mediation.
In a previous life, I was formally trained as an academic philosopher and taught logic and philosophy at university.
Before writing comes thinking. ( The optional-to-read pitch) :
As a professional writer, editor, university educator, and speaker, with more than 1,000 print and digital publications, I've recently launched an online program for enhancing your expository writing: learn2engage — With Confidence. My mission is to help writers and would-be writers improve their thought and writing, master the logic of discussion, and strengthen their ability to deal with disagreement… all of which I have found to be natural precursors to improved writing.
Writer/Editor – Marketer – Ghost Writer – Marine Industry Consultant • Port Royal Group
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