How Hong Kong’s champions of free speech are eroding our freedoms
Alice Wu says freedom of expression is a human right because it is founded on our humanity, and the abuse of such freedoms to demean others, as the city recently saw in the pro-independence poster row, must not be tolerated
Free speech is eroding. For this, we should partly blame the malicious words in online message boards, chat groups and social media that ridicule, demean, bully, and propagate divisions and hate under the cover of anonymity.
Trolls and cyberbullies are among the freeloaders of free speech. They take advantage of what we hold sacrosanct to fire off words that do not contribute to the advancement of humanity, or even any meaningful interaction.
But we tolerate it – to a degree – because we accept that unwarranted offence is the price we pay for the freedom of thought and ideas, and the right to express them. Sometimes, buried within those harmful words is a useful point.
But how far is too far?
Whatever the medium of communication used, words have consequences, and the exercise of our right to free speech always comes with responsibilities. Anonymity does not exonerate us from our duties to one another.
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Freedom of speech is not absolute – it never has been and never will be. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights notes there are “special duties and responsibilities” that come with our right to freedom of expression, which may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions”.
These refer not only to legal restraints, which we have rightfully tried to keep to a bare minimum and which are constantly being tested in our hyperconnected world.
Freedom of expression comes also with moral and ethical considerations. Being legally permissible does not make thoughtless words less open to approbation.
Our use of complex language systems and processes for meaningful interaction sets humans apart from other animals. Such interaction requires a vast repertoire of thinking skills, which includes listening, observing, questioning, speaking, analysing and understanding. So it’s not mere words that free speech protects. Free speech protects our very being.
Empathy is another one of those characteristics that we have and expect to put to good use, for the common good. The ability to relate to another, to collaborate, to form large communities are all qualities that set us apart. When one chooses to deny one’s humanity, one relinquishes one’s human rights.
Free speech is a human right because it functions as a part of, not apart from, our humanness. So when words illicit outrage, that outrage is rightfully aimed at the composer who put pen to paper. “What was he thinking?”, “Where was her humanity?” are legitimate questions.
Each time someone defiles free speech with abusive words or simply by not thinking, there will be others who feel compelled to tear down these words. That is why such acts are an affront and the biggest threat to free speech. Sure, you’re free to sabotage our freedom of expression in the name of free speech, but you will not be free from judgment, especially for taking an active role in eroding it instead of protecting it.
In the recent furore over pro-independence slogans appearing at Hong Kong universities, including Education University,some offensive comments were posted on campus and some people have defended them.
Society expects more from people who are training for an honourable profession like teaching. They must bear the consequences of not holding those who composed and displayed ugly words accountable.
The words we utter reflect our character. Free speech cannot save us from ourselves.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA