We live in a social media dominated world. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, LinkedIn, Reddit, Pinterest – if you are not a user of at least two or more of those services, then you are not only not normal, you are the anomaly. That’s certainly true if you are in your 20s and 30s (and younger) anyway.
One of the biggest benefits of social media is that it has allowed us all a platform to air our views and opinions to the wider world, the freedom to express ourselves, the freedom of speech. Today you can log into your twitter account and say something and publish it to the world immediately. It’s a simple concept, but something our past generations could not possibly contemplate. And people are utilising this novelty of the modern world to its fullest. Just take a look at Facebook or Twitter during any major event – be it the Olympics, a major natural disaster, or the death of a controversial political figure – and you will see entire cavalcades of people airing their opinions on the matter at hand. You might say that’s one of the benefits of living in a democratic country, that modern technology allows us to indulge in.
However, this brings me to the question – does freedom of expression necessarily amount to freedom of speech? One thing that has always struck me while witnessing the unfolding of any major world event through social media is how there always seems to be an unspoken right or wrong opinion at every step. It’s quite simple really – you agree with my opinion on something and we’re all friends and jolly and all is right in the world. However if you disagree with me on something, specially if it’s somewhat of a contentious topic like gay marriage, immigration, healthcare, etc., then you are wrong and I have lost a lot of respect for you and definitely do not like you much, only because you had a different opinion than mine. Let’s be really honest, we witness this day in day out in today’s world.
The point I’m trying to make here is that we are not tolerant towards opposing opinions, not really. Opinions only matter if they agree with ours and fit certain criteria. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Similar laws are in place in most other countries of the developed world. But that only means that the government can’t legally penalise you for having different opinions. That still doesn’t stop your friends and acquaintances and the greater society from ostracising you, does it?
Let’s take the issue of gay marriage for instance. This has been a particularly hot topic in recent months as legislations start coming in legalising gay marriage in many countries across Europe and North America. There has been a lot of active support from people who have long wanted to see this happen. However, expressing any opinion on this issue is expected to be in favour of the motion. One even thinks about any point that isn’t in full support of the legalisation of gay marriage, and they will be instantly shunned and ostracised, termed a “homophobic” and what not. You don’t even have to be against gay marriage really, but even try saying something like “Ok, wanting to legalise gay marriage is fine, but what about certain repercussions such as… [insert any multitude of reasons]”, and watch the responses coming in. Hardly anyone will even try to listen to you and understand exactly what you’re trying to say, because most of them will be too busy judging you and basically eschewing you from their social circle. This isn’t even uniquely about gay marriage. Try offering an opinion about any major issue that doesn’t conform with the general bandwagon and the response you will get will be similar.
So once again, we aren’t tolerant of other people’s opinions. The only way your freedom of speech is acceptable is if you jump on the bandwagon that everyone else is on, otherwise you are either racist or homophobic or who knows what. I am not saying that people should be just allowed to say or do whatever they like, because that would be silly and downright dangerous. But merely expressing an opinion if it is not harming anyone directly? Are we so prejudiced and judgmental a world that we can’t allow anyone to express themselves freely unless they unconditionally agree with us? In that case, what is the difference between the free democratic world we live in and Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Germany?
Social media does allow us the freedom to express ourselves readily and openly, however it is still a long way to go before we can really start accepting others’ opinions for what they are. That unfortunately seems to be the state of the world we are living in. Unless I am personally threatened by someone’s opposing views and fear for my own safety, is it really that hard for me to just accept a difference of opinion without losing respect for that person? Aren’t differences of opinions part of what make the world an interesting place to live in?