Free speech. We need it. We rely on it. Sometimes it suits us, sometimes it offends us and sometimes it just entertains us but we agree that it should never be compromised. Is there a point though, at which free speech becomes outright hate speech?
The other day, I met up with a friend. A writer. She has always been bold and brave in expressing her opinions, confronting topics such as countering violent extremism and social injustice in her work. That day though, she wasn't her usual self -- she was wounded.
She told me that her latest piece had seen her cop a lot of online abuse. Not just your run-of-the-mill "I think your article is crap" or "I disagree with your opinion" type stuff, but full-on, sexually violent hate speech focused around the fact that she's a woman and of South Asian heritage.
Guarded at first, she eventually told me how her family had read the comments and how painful that had been for her. I could see she was hurting but figured she just needed a break from writing. She said she was done and couldn't continue to write. This wasn't the first time she has had to read heinous comments about herself, but I could tell this time was different.
In Australia, we do not actually have an explicit constitutional right to free speech, as is provided for in the United States by the First Amendment. Despite this, we do enjoy a great level of freedom of speech. It's a wonderful thing. I appreciate that comment is free. I understand that encouraging discussion is a crucial part (if not, the most crucial aspect) of democracy. Historically, during heated dinner table debates, I have always opted on the side of uncensored, unabated free speech.
Yet the issue that now emerges is how to draw the line between free speech and hate speech on the internet. The question we must start talking about, is "at what point does free speech become a barrier to free speech itself?"
Will we lose brilliant opinions, great thinkers and voices because of the fear of abuse and online vitriol? A brain drain 2.0? Again, I'm not talking about your average dissenting opinion, I'm talking about violent and threatening comments that make people fear for their safety.
The issue of online hate speech and threats impacts every individual. No one is immune, but it is becoming apparent that women and minorities are victims to online hate speech at higher rates than men. Solveig Horne, The Minister of Children and Equality in Norway, recently wrote a powerful piece in the World Post titled 'Hate Speech -- A Threat to Freedom of Speech', in which she wrote:
"Attempts to silence women in the public debate through hate speech, are an attack on women's human rights. Women are under-represented in the media. In order to get a balanced public debate it is important that many voices are heard... Hate speech may cause fear and can be the reason why people withdraw from the public debate."
I really worry about a society where people are scared to express their opinion, because I also have been scared. I have freaked out, stopped or self-censored when wanting to write or talk openly about being Muslim. I have moments of panic about what people will say, the comments I'll have to read, the hatred.
As a Muslim woman and writer, I think I'm probably a troll's dream (disclaimer: not an invitation). I am all for clean anti-Muslim or anti-female debate if that's what you're about -- that's the beauty of free speech. I don't have an issue with being challenged, I just have an issue with being threatened.
I spent a large part of my twenties silenced by fear and I expect many other people right now are also afraid and silent. What happens to a society when minorities are silenced? In a situation where we already have the issue of a lack of representation, this silencing is even more dangerous. The idea of even one person not coming forward and expressing their opinion, even if I totally and utterly disagree with that opinion, frankly scares me. That feels like a failure for free speech.
Unfortunately I don't have the answer. I don't think there is one answer but there are things that can be done to help. Increasing education around online commenting and internet literacy may help reduce the effect of this issue for future generations who have some big e-challenges ahead with increased social media pressure, online bullying and revenge porn emerging as notions other generations before have not had to deal with.
Creating accountability for individuals through requiring a form of online registration to a platform before being able to comment or a platform increasing the moderating of comments which cross over into violent or threatening language may also be methods of reducing threatening hate speech. What about turning off comments altogether? After all, print, television and radio are all forms of media which have successfully operated without the ability for viewers to give immediate feedback.
I don't have an issue with being challenged, I just have an issue with being threatened.
Well, that seems a bit archaic for the online word -- like refusing to keep up with the times, and isn't keeping up with the times kind of the whole point of the internet? Comments are a way to keep people engaged, to generate discussion, to increase participation, to give voices we would not normally hear a platform and an audience. Comments can also help shift people's perceptions or increase tolerance for viewpoints other than your own.
For a lot of people (including myself), you read something that moves you online and then you get distracted and go about the rest of your day. Maybe one way that we can all help make a difference is to counter some of the hate with some positivity. If you appreciate something you read, say something. Don't stay silent. Maybe then the vile comments won't feel so overpowering?
We have seen how the internet can be a source of empowering minority voices, providing a platform for those who aren't heard, to be heard. Now more than ever we need an inclusive dialogue and active participation. We need 'alternative' voices. In fact, we need so many that they eventually won't even be considered as 'alternative' anymore.