Why the right to free speech is often a question of self-control

Alice Wu says freedom of speech is a rightly extolled privilege, but to revel in it with scant regard to common sense, civility and the tolerance of dissent amounts to its abuse

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 1:06am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 October, 2016, 1:06am

Living in a crowded residential complex, like many Hongkongers, my neighbours and I have had to endure the assault of one person’s right to free speech. Her right to express herself – very loudly and at all hours of the day and night, and in vulgar language – has infringed on our right to peace and quiet, to not being woken up at ungodly hours by her screams of wanting to do very obscene things to all our mothers.

Everyone who has been affected went through every mitigating channel available and, of course, she is still asserting the right to be our neighbourhood beacon of free speech.

We have worried about her state of mind, the harm and danger she may pose to herself and to those living with her. We imagine the dire circumstances she must be enduring that are feeding her explosive anguish. We have resorted to cold-comforting ourselves with the fact that at least we have a roof over our heads. Some of us, out of frustration exacerbated by sleep deprivation, among other things, have screamed back abuse not so gently into the darkness of the night. And yet, none of us, not even the poor building management, has been able to do anything effective in safeguarding our rights to a whole lot of other things.

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I have heard many horror stories about noisy neighbours who insisted on asserting those same rights and then some. Deliberate disregard for, blatant trampling on and wilful negligence of others’ rights and freedoms do not exist only in the political world. And as in the case of the noisy neighbours, a lot of times, it is not an issue of the need to control speech, but the need to control ourselves.

I would like to hope that those of us who have been victims of noisy, offensive and deliberately inconsiderate neighbours would take it upon ourselves to be more mindful of our noise levels and the nuisance we may inadvertently impose on others in all realms of our daily lives, because that would make us better, and not lesser, for the abuse we had to be subjected to. Self-awareness and self-control are among the noblest and yet underrated qualities. Indeed, we are not rewarded for courtesy. Common courtesy isn’t so common any more, evident by the existence of “courtesy agreements”.

In Hong Kong, we should be celebrating the freedom of speech we do have, instead of proving that we have it by constantly challenging it or treating it as a contest of who can come up with the next-most outrageous insult. Freedom of speech is alive and kicking, evident by the things some legislators-elect have uttered. Whether they have a personal price to pay for their right to oh-so-carefreely offend will be determined by the court soon. The price the community at large is paying is obvious.

The freedom of speech is – rightfully so – a greatly extolled privilege. It is sacrosanct, but there are limitations to it. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does subject its exercise to “special duties and responsibilities”. We’re extremely careful whenever someone suggests regulation, because we know how authoritarians have used that as a tool to harm. But we are often forgetful of one of its greatest threats: those who abuse them, and those who abuse them for no good reason. The freedom to offend does not necessarily mean that the words uttered are wise, fair or conducive to the robust debate vital to human progress. Its exercise cannot be carried out without common sense, civility and tolerance for dissent.

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Winston Churchill said: “Some people’s idea of [free speech] is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone else says anything back, that is an outrage.” This was certainly the case for a Rhode Island man who recently wrote to a newspaper declaring women over 20, women who do not “have the benefit of nature’s blessing of youth”, and women “coping poorly with their weight or advancing age” should stop wearing yoga pants in public.

Needless to say, this didn’t go down well with a lot of people who felt that women should be free to make their own choices in the clothes they wear without being judged or raped. A “yoga pants parade” was organised for his benefit and he was outraged by it. Go figure.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA