Let us take a moment and think about our own stance on the freedom of expression. Immediately we want to proclaim our support for everyone’s right to express themselves and their views. We all seem to agree on this, as a principle. But, going from the freedom of expression as a principle to the actual manifestations of this right in our everyday lives, we are not actually as good in respecting the freedom of expression of others as we are claiming the right for ourselves. Even with best intentions, we get very defensive of our own views against the others, even when against the best countering evidence. Are we actually implicitly rejecting the freedom of expression of certain views and people?
When we are faced with disagreeing views, sometimes we agree to disagree: you respect my right to express my view, and I respect yours, but we are not trying to impose our own ideas onto another. But sometimes we feel threatened, hurt, or outraged, by someone else’s views and would rather prefer to not hear them. Words (and pictures and art) can be more effective than any physical action we can do. Why is it so hard to respect someone’s right to freedom of expression? When we are facing speech that challenges our own views, we easily think, “How dare you say that you have no right to say that, you are lying, etc.”, and we immediately pull up our mental defenses against that person.
Why do we become so defensive? Even when faced with evidence that should make us question our assumptions, we stick to our views even stronger. In psychology, this is called the backfire effect. Our brain handles physical and intellectual threats in similar ways, which means we are likely to defend ourselves, even with an attack. Especially when our sensitive core beliefs are challenged. We are building our views on years of upbringing, traditions, religion, family, peer groups, and our life experiences. A view or any piece of information that does not fit into that consistent whole is likely to be rejected, and the core beliefs defended even stronger. As if we love consistency; which could mean that we do not want to change.
But freedom of expression necessarily includes change, because we are facing different views in our daily lives. Often when talking about the freedom of expression, we do not think about the actual exchange that is happening on the grassroots level. We are focusing more on how the laws should regulate speech and publication of speech and other expressive acts, but we forget that we are using the right every day, even if we are not considering ourselves as activists aiming at social change.
But how are we actually using the right to freedom of expression? Usually, we want to hear something that supports our own view instead of questioning our own views and beliefs. We easily become hateful and fearful towards people who express different views: we see them threatening our own identity.
It is easy to say that you want freedom of expression for everyone. It is less easy to actually face these different expressions that are confronting, challenging and questioning your own views. It is the time that we acknowledge that even with our best intentions we might not always meet up to our own expectations of ourselves. And that is okay, we are only humans after all. But we have to acknowledge our own implicit restrictions and mental defenses and start working on practicing listening, receiving and empathy towards different views. Freedom of expression also includes responsibility for two things: responsibility for consequences of your speech, and responsibility to listen and reflect.
We are responsible for our own speech. Is speech never only speech? When are we crossing the line into racism, gender-based hatred, or xenophobia? What is healthy critique and what is poorly based and argued opinion? Commonly the limits of freedom of expression lie in whether the speech explicitly calls for physical violence or not. However, if the speech itself does not incite to physical violence, this does not mean that there will be no physical violence inspired by all that.
Our speech creates an atmosphere, and if that atmosphere is one of hatred and fear, it will lead to polarization and increase of the threat of violence. Even if our intention is not about violence in itself, by creating hatred and fear we are opening our society to violence.
Apart from being responsible for our own speech, the freedom of expression also includes the responsibility to listen and reflect the others’ speech. This includes also views that we do not agree with. Nevertheless, we should not forget to be critical towards the narratives around us. We should be ready to debate, justify, discuss, and challenge any view expressed to us. As said, we are good in criticizing others and telling them to change their views, but we should also be open to challenge our own views, and if needed, change them. We should reflect the way we are reacting to the way others express themselves. If we are open for interaction and dialogue of different views, we will have the freedom of expression. By Saana Sarpo