January 23, 2016

Can We Express Ourselves Safely Online?

If I chose my least favorite effect the Internet has on people, it’s the fear of self-expression.

I don’t believe a person’s identity means much if they can’t express it, at least a little. Expressing views and ideas to others and seeing their effects make them meaningful. An identity based on helping the poor means nothing if you don’t actually help the poor. Even if that’s as small as increase awareness.

One would think the Internet, with so many ways to share ideas, would help. But for many it can have the opposite effect. Part of human nature is people will always disagree with a viewpoint. This itself isn’t bad, but is when disagreement gets so public, vicious, and commonplace. Express a view that people disagree with enough, regardless of logic, and risk massive harassment. There’s endless examples of people sending tweets that got them fired or created international scandal. Sharing views that did more harm than just a few people disagreeing. It can happen to anyone, myself included.

But is this really bad? Some expressed views deserve genuine outrage. Entitlement, blatant ignorance, racism or prejudice shouldn’t go unchallenged just because they’re sincerely held. It’s like saying a sincerely held belief that only black people get AIDs should be left alone. Even if it’s shared by a major US official.

Is there a balance? A rule for when to let expressions be and when to question them?

Maybe not. This statement implies some expressions should always be questioned and some never should. But are there expressions that should never be questioned? Claims we should never ask someone to back up? Religious beliefs to ask if they inspire morality or are outdated dogma? Political views to see if they just want to mislead or control people? Personal views to see if they’re reasonable or narcissistic?

George Carlin said people should be raised to question everything. Everything we accept without questioning gives someone a chance to exert control. Even things we were raised to accept, things we grow up loving or made to just accept as they are, deserve some skepticism.

Let’s bring this back to my original issue: the Internet creating a fear of self-expression. From my own reasoning it looks like there’s no way around this. Fear of excessive criticism and consequence will always be there.

The truth is there’s no way around this. Part of being an adult is accepting greater consequences for one’s actions. How one speaks is part of that. Kids can get away with offensive speech more often since they’re seen as “still learning” or “don’t understand what they’re saying.” Adults are expected to know what and what not to say. A freedom of speech comes with a responsibility for informed speech.

It’s also a responsibility I feel is important to accept and live up to.

In the end, damage done by standing by principles isn’t as bad as the damage done by not having any. I would rather be hurt by people disagreeing with my character than being an empty shell saying what others want to hear.