Over the past few weeks my feed has been filled with book week costumes. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s been book month, not week. Cute kids in cute creations. Proud mammas showing off their genius. I shrank a little inside when a kind soul pointed out kids should be dressing as book characters, not movie or sporting heroes. You see, I’d love to make something strictly book related and awesome with my son. I sew, I’m crafty and I’m partial to Facebook bragging rights. Book week and I should be made for each other. But my boy insisted on going as that modern-day literary hero, Christiano Ronaldo.
Seems he wasn’t the only kid who wanted to emulate his sporting hero. A little boy dressed up as Nic Naitanui, his mother artificially darkened his skin and the rest is history. (If you missed it: the whole story and a thoughtful response by Amy of Hangbag Mafia)
The whole scenario and particularly the commentary surrounding it made both my head and heart ache. All intelligent, unintelligible, ignorant and infuriating comments aside, it all came down to a very simple tenet. One I think we can all achieve. One that seemed to be ignored. Just. Be. Kind.
And perhaps Thought. Before. Action.
It’s so simple and yet so difficult.
If we all thought beyond ourselves and our experiences for a small moment less people would be exposed to unnecessary hurt. If we collectively thought less about what we want to do and what we feel and more about the impact of those actions, I am sure the world would be a happier place. Ultimately, it’s about putting other people before rights imagined to be inalienable.
Social media has allowed the amplification of voices. That’s a wonderful thing. But along the way someone decided that freedom of speech, action and expression were to be upheld at all costs. That those freedoms were the most important ones and be damned to all else.
At a common-sense level, that’s ridiculous. Defending freedom of speech is circular at best when the only thing being rebutted is some-one else’s freedom to reply. You see it all the time: “I have a right to say what I like.” “Sure, and I have a right to say what I like.” That can go on for days. Often does.
It’s as nonsensical as “I have a right to say offensive things but you have no right to be offended.” Something I also see constantly within social media commentary. As though hurting a person isn’t enough — invalidation of that hurt is also necessary. As though someone pointing out the offence caused is more offensive than causing hurt in the first place.
On the flip side, the nature of social media has led to some being disproportionately persecuted for exercising their perceived freedom of speech. Justine Sacco and her one badly thought out tweet is a prime example. But even then, did those who felt it fair to met out a mob response do so with any sense of responsibility? Any thought for how a person’s life would affected? Or does the digital allow us to forget that there are actual people with flesh, blood and pain involved? Do we tend to think in terms of far-removed screens, pseudonyms and avatars? Is that what protects and upholds our entitlement to free speech above all else in the social media space?
Don’t misunderstand, I am very grateful to live in a country where we have freedom of speech, religion, and expression. I don’t take the fact that I can write this and invite debate and discussion lightly. But I also don’t accept that it comes without strings attached. There are responsibilities that go hand in hand with these vast and wonderful freedoms.
I think there are things more important than exercising the freedom to do or say whatever the hell we like. Being mindful that we live in a world bigger than ourselves. Not perpetuating violence, inequity and intolerance. Thinking about others. Not stealing other people’s stories and making them about ourselves. Protecting people’s safety. Protecting people’s dignity. Thinking before doing, saying and writing. Learning and reflecting before commenting.
Being kind. Being mindful. Being respectful. Being open-minded. Being able to say “I was wrong”.
I weigh each of those as a responsibility that must sit alongside my treasured freedom to say and write what I please.
Do you think freedom of speech has been divorced from responsibility in the age of social media?