Speak your mindFreedom of speech depends on the concept of diversity of opinions and tolerance
Freedom of speech emerged to curb the brutality of states that discouraged people from speaking their minds against the state or ruler, which was often the truth. Freedom of speech depends on the concept of diversity of opinions and tolerance for the existence of truth. However, in the post-modern era, truth is contested because post-modernism did not encourage belief in the absolute truth as it heavily depended on the idea that no one is free from error, and thus no one has the authority to define the truth or impose the idea of right and wrong on others.
Undeniably, social interaction in this century is complex because our social engagement heavily relies on the disclaimer. It can be understood as a statement that is meant to prevent an incorrect understanding of something. In social interaction, we justify it with the terms ‘no offence’, ‘I am not generalising’, ‘in my opinion’, ‘I might be wrong’, ‘don’t take it otherwise’ and so forth. These phrases not only respect the other party’s feelings, but it is the legitimately the politest way of expressing yourself without offending others. And this behaviour is heartily welcomed by the other party because the rise of post-modernism has also given the freedom to disagree openly.
Rise of the internet
The rise of the internet and social media has changed the ways and means of social interaction to the point where most of our communication nowadays is more digital than verbal. People struggled for centuries to make their voices heard, and now anyone from any corner of the world can not only give opinions but also ridicule them as being false. Previously, people used to be executed for unravelling the truth; nowadays, they are verbally harassed, mocked and humiliated, slowly killing the truth and honesty inside them. Alas, people resort to lies instead of truth.
An increase in compassion and adherence to the truth with tolerance and cohesion was supposed to be the automatic outcome of a massive social interaction resulting through freedom of speech and expression. But if we critically analyse the pattern of communication and the usage of the internet and social media, we see that they are mostly platforms for fraud, lies and resentment instead of honesty and truth. Similarly, the age of the internet gave birth to netizens who have opinions on each and everything that comes on their screen. But the world would be a better place if some of those opinions had connections to the main agenda and if they could actually engage in healthy debates.
Previously, people confronted brutal regimes with the truth braving harsh punishment; but in the 21st century, people seem to be going for lies. Despite realising that something is not only improper but totally wrong, why are we reluctant to say so? Why do we want honesty from everyone but do not return it? We might be respecting other people’s views and opinions, but inside we are already hating ourselves for speaking the truth. This trend in the era of freedom questions the whole foundation on which freedom of speech and expression was imagined—diversity of opinions and tolerance. There are diversities in opinion that lacks tolerance. Tolerance here means respecting another’s freedom of expression and accepting it without judgement and bias.
Arguably, the sole purpose of social media is to connect people around the world, at least that is what the creators of these platforms say. Meanwhile, studies on human social cognition suggest that interaction among people requires more emotional involvement than when interacting through computers, making digital communication easier than personal communication. Thus, this has altered the relationship dynamics within and between parents and children, friends, partners, spouses, colleagues and neighbours. The whirlwind of globalisation and pursuit of economic prosperity led to the emergence of nuclear families, minimalistic living and demanding jobs which slowly sliced down the social relationship of people.
In some cases, upon realising the cost of the freedom of self-expression, people will lose faith in other people and decide to remain aloof from social interaction. On the other hand, for some, society itself declares them as aliens when they rebel against the hypocrisy of people, compelling them to either fake their emotions and be one of them or give up the idea of living and embrace death. The rest of the people survive by avoiding the dodgeball of frustration and anxiety. Interestingly though, a majority of people have experienced some of these pretexts once in their lifetime.
Additionally, a cursory glance at suicide statistics leads us to question our homage to disclaimers and ignorance towards compassion and truth and also the quality of life. According to the World Health Organisation, close to 800,000 people commit suicide every year, which means one person kills himself every 40 seconds. While the link between suicide and mental disorders (in particular, depression and alcohol use disorders) has been well established in high-income countries, many suicides happen impulsively during moments of crisis with a breakdown in the ability to deal with life stresses, such as financial problems, relationship break-ups or chronic pain and illness.
Similarly, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the 15-29 age group, with 1.2 million adolescents dying every year due to causes almost all of which are preventable with timely, evidence-based and often low-cost intervention. When one says preventable through timely evidence-based low-cost intervention, is there a link between prevention and the decline in honesty, compassion and truth in our social interaction? Probably yes, because studies show that continuous social personal interaction among parents, family, friends and colleagues develops a sense of belongingness. The sharing of insecurities, stress and life problems will not only fill an empty heart but also fill the gaps between people, resulting in compassion and trust among each other. They are both essential to encourage diversity of opinions and tolerance towards different opinions.
Dhakal works at the Centre for South Asian Studies