Speaking one’s mind: Rights and Responsibilities

Perhaps one of the Four Freedoms that regularly gets debated is the one on Free Speech. More than anything, it is the right to say one’s mind, to express one’s thoughts without fear, that arouses an immediate and passionate response from civil libertarians. When one talks about democracy, it is kind of a presupposition that the right to speak freely is one of its cornerstones.

When the Worldwide Web exploded sometime in the mid- to late-90s, many hailed its digital domains as a kind of uber democracy; the Net’s ability to let information flow freely rivaled that of even our most developed democracies. Even nations that strive to censor the free flow of information online find that restricting free speech and expression on the Web is like trying to hold back the sea with a fork.

Blogs are a natural by-product, in my view, of the Web’s heavily-democratic “fundamental option”(one must remember the Net’s roots, that it was an information network for research and the military. Democracy was never in its DNA; it just happened to be so after the public got a hold of the Net). Blogs allowed the general pubic to bypass traditional Gatekeepers of Information, giving ordinary citizens the ability to be heard and, most importantly, exchange views.

But a caveat of democracy is that you have to expect the Good along with the Bad. In one discussion I had with Dr. Ronald Meinardus, he commented that if someone had the temerity to put their thoughts on the Web via a blog, then he’d better be ready for the reactions people will have on what he wrote.

I was… intrigued by a recent post from John Nery on Inquirer’s Current. In it, Nery explained why several posts in the comments section were unapproved, since Current, as per Inquirer’s policies, has to moderate all comments. Nery even cited several examples of the comments that made him finally speak out on the way people have been reacting to the posts in Current.

I’m sure the bloggers out there – whether you’re the “serious” type like John Nery and Manolo Quezon, or the “friendster” type who simply blog as a form of online diary – have experienced such comments before. I recently did, with that… thing who had the gall to strike out at me yet was coward enough to hide behind anonymity. Sometimes, despite your strong adherence to liberal democracy, you find yourself sufficiently outraged at the… blatantness of the lack of decency in the comment that you find yourself doing the online equivalent of censorship. And then, you get hit for being too strict with your blog.

A lot of people contend that Moderation, whether in blogs or the more comment-driven Forums, goes against the principle of free speech; Certainly during the time Drilon’s people were holding me on trial over some really bad posts on the Party website I used the same rationale as a rebuttal on why I was lax with the monitoring of the site’s Guestbook. Democracy, especially Liberal Democracy, after all is supposed to thrive on the free exchange of ideas and opinions. In fact, LP Founder Manuel Roxas stated that as the first among the defining aspects of Philippine Liberals, the right to stand up and speak for what you believe in, provided others are allowed that right too, in a “free and fair contest.”

But, like what we always teach potential members to KALIPI, rights have their corresponding responsibilities. When it regards Free Speech and Expression, I always teach the kids that one has to follow certain rules, too. Like decency and decorum. That if you don’t agree to the other’s point of view, then engage him or her on a debate based on the issues stated. Never, never, resort to name-calling and ad hominem arguments. When I teach debaters or adjudicate a debate, I always emphasize the point that people who name-call or resort to insults are the ones with a weak case, since a position should be able to stand on its own merits.

One of the people who reacted to Nery’s post apologized but added that people become passionate sometimes, so really harsh statements become unavoidable. My rebuff to this would be there is passion, and then there is insulting. A passionate argument still retains a large measure of grounding on the context of the debate; you might already be shouting and calling the other names, but your statements are still logical and on-topic.

Contrast that with people who, really, regard anyone’s opinions that contradict theirs as outright wrong. Yes, we must defend our positions, even with passion. But we must make it a point to try to listen to the other’s PoV, even as our head is throbbing at the blood rushing into it because we’re so worked-up already. People who are so fanatic with their beliefs don’t even try to engage you in debate but simply hit you, below the belt preferably.

You’d know if someone is engaging you in an honest debate. Look at my exchange with Manolo over my stand on libel. Although I was passionate with my stand, Manolo’s measured stating of the facts of the issue made me realize that perhaps I was in the wrong somewhere. At the very least, Manolo reminded me that, as a liberal democrat, freedom of speech and the press should be inalienable and uncompromisable tenets of my belief system. The press might be garrulous, almost obscene sometimes in its pursuit of a story, but its right to gather and present information to the public must not be questioned, nor abridged in any way.

Contrast that with the way Anonymous attacked me (and attack it was, since there really is no way to describe its posts to me). Even from the outset, its positions were clear, and that there was no intent of engaging me in constructive debate. It even started the name-calling, something the second Anonymous post said I did when I responded.

I dignified its first post with a response, despite the warning signals from my Training as an analyst, because I gave whoever was behind the comment the benefit of the doubt, and acknowledged its democratic right to free expression. I also wanted to be proven wrong, that perhaps Anonymous was just a passionate believer of that terrorist Senator of ours, so I decided to respond on the basis of the issues stated, hoping the twit would stop the assault and deal with me on the proper context. Its responses to my attempt at returning the discussion to a modicum of civility and intelligence show just how sadly wrong I was.

So what do you do when, as blogmasters, you have… things like that crawling all over your space? These demand the right of free speech and expression but spit on the responsibilities inherent in that right, even to the longstanding rules of “netiquette.”

In my opinion… you throw the book at them. There are ways to protect the right without abridging them. One of those ways is why I transfered Phoenix Eyrie to WordPress from Blogger.

As blogmasters, as a kind of Gatekeeper and Strategic Constituent ourselves, we too have a responsibility graver than simply adhering to the right of free expression. Those of us who have the gall to make blogs that serve as alternative sources of information and opinion on important – and, therefore… controversial – issues must also insist on the responsibilities that are part and parcel of that right, of any right.

Liberal democracy, after all, is not founded on a simple insistence on rights; that way leads to anarchy. No: a decent person ought to appreciate the simple rules that prevent people like Anonymous from turning what would otherwise have been a decent, informative debate into a word war through their flaming and trolling.

Whether online or IRL, rights always have responsibilities, and rules need not abridge rights. So long as we adhere to the basic principles of the essential Freedoms, I’m sure we’re not even inching towards despotism and censorship.

As liberal democratic Gatekeepers and Strategic Constituents we should work for the upliftment of the public to a level of discourse of the so-called “mature” polity – another cornerstone of a fully-functioning liberal democracy – and part of this is teaching people to be responsible, decent citizens. And rules, the necessary and minimal ones that insure a constructive debate on issues, is part of this education. Like I said above, anyone who insists on the strict application of freedom and rights is either an anarchist or someone badly in need of training in urbanidad.

Passion is ok, but humanity has long ago transcended the mere dictates of passion. We are not chimpanzees on patrol, looking for members of the other tribe to beat to death because they aren’t with us. We are supposed to be thinking beings, able to argue our case without the need to browbeat the other.

If you have the gall to speak your mind and demand that right, then you should be ready to be accountable not just for what you say, but how you say it and what you intend with what you say. For me, that is the essence of free speech.

Now, who will discuss this with me?

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