Those who are the masters of platforms have to be extremely cautious in upholding freedom of speech. In an environment where fake news spread with ease but where the education system has failed to produce enough critical thinkers, we need to guard against abhorrent views that leave stains like curry on a cotton shirt. Allowing free speech is not the same as permitting carelessness that normalises hatred, leaving it permanent in the fabric of our society.
How can we tell whether a view is abhorrent or not? One giveaway is that it fosters the feeling of superiority in one group of people above another group. Opinions that are conveyed within a mere hour can justify resentments in those that had already held them. This can undo decades of work that aims to raise the status of minorities, on the basis of justice and equality, overcoming many roadblocks to achieve the same opportunities and recognition.
The counter argument is usually, why not fight falsehoods with truth and facts, or are we scared of a little debate? To that I say, where did that thinking get us with Trump? Can we really assume that everyone will know the truth when presented with it? And let’s not forget those who know the truth but willingly turn their backs on it.
After the Brexit referendum result was announced, 289 cases of hate crime were reported the day after. Again, that’s a record of 289 cases in only one day. This tells us that for some, all they needed was (what they perceived) as tacit agreement from society that their hatred is justified and therefore, can be expressed openly.
Often, the consequences of hateful speeches do not end in the hall where they’re held. The effects ripple out onto the streets and manifest in aggression that may harm others. Some people who come to these events may not only come to listen to the talk, but also to tally those attending, how many there are in agreement with such views. A large enough crowd will make them feel more assured to voice or act out the hostility that has been kept hidden for so long.
My friend in Westminster who works in higher education said that there has been a drastic increase in violence towards minorities in universities. Last year, shortly after Brexit, the police reported that there had been a 42% spike in hate crime and numerous reports of ethnic minorities and immigrants being targeted for racial abuse.
In Croydon two Fridays ago, a 17 year old Kurdish boy was severely beaten by a mob of up to 30 people when he admitted to them that he is an asylum seeker, witnessed by onlookers from a nearby bus stop. He was left with a fractured spine, shattered eye and bleeding in the brain. He is now fighting for his life.
I too, have been mistreated (though not beaten, but verbally abused) at an art gallery by those brazened by Brexit, who thought that I did not belong there and that now it’s socially acceptable for them to say so. And that wasn’t the only time. Now I am fearful of going to places where people might think that I don’t belong. And when I do, always keeping in mind to be out of the way and become a wallflower. This has made me think that freedom of speech resulting in the loss of freedom for others is not really standing up for freedom at all.
Masters of platforms need to exercise some wisdom and common sense. Don’t close your eyes to the fact that by permitting or encouraging, you are complicit in fostering hatred and division. Everything has its good and bad. Freedom of speech too has its evil, perhaps not to the listeners of the speech, but rather to the group that can get hurt by the actions resulting from the speech’s message. Holding up pure ideals without taking into account human behaviour and eccentricities, their capacity to overreact and be riled up, is being negligent in the protection of the fragile groups of society.
When they are young, by all means, teach them the sacred value of freedom of speech. But when they are a little bit older, do teach them about moderation and practicality of holding onto ideals, including their unintended consequences.
I believe in free speech. I believe, I truly believe. But falsehoods and hatred can win if we are not careful.
That’s what I’m afraid of.