Freedom of (hate) speech

It’s taken me a while to write this, mainly because I was worried I’d be fired for expressing a dissident view. But then I remembered a quote by Edmund Burke that encouraged me to be brave and to fight for rational thought. In case you’re unfamiliar with the story, the gist of it is that someone made an insensitive post on Facebook that likened black people to monkeys. It received a lot of back lash, the general consensus was that her comment was racist and many people called for some form of punishment including criminal proceedings.

I am not debating whether or not her post was racist and offensive, because I believe that to be irrelevant. I am a strong advocate of free speech, regardless of its propensity to cause offense. Being offended should not deter people from expressing themselves, irrespective of how valid those views are. Offense is a subjective thing, and if we use that as a yard stick for measuring the appropriateness of speech, then nobody would be allowed to say anything as it may offend one person or another.

Instead, we should use harm as the basis of measurement, not counting intangibles such as hurt feelings. In other words, if words lead to bodily harm (such as verbal bullying causing suicide) then that should be punishable. However, if the only consequence was a bruised ego or a flare of indignation, then that should not be cause for reciprocal hatred, death threats or a call for legal action.

I can’t imagine how one unknown individual’s brisk comment could be cause for any sort of harm, even psychological harm. The back lash on the other hand is a different story, as reports claim Penny had to be hospitalised due to the severity of the reactions to her post. It’s the difference between one person casting a stone and a thousand each throwing one. The power of the mob outweighs any individual and the scary bit is that it is near impossible to tell who dealt the final, devastating blow. This is dangerous as responsibility is so dispersed that people are even more inclined to be purposefully malicious.

The bottom line is that we all say mean and hurtful things. Many of us will make inappropriate jokes that borders on racism, sexism, etc. And we should be free to make them without censorship so long as no significant harm comes from it.