Should freedom of speech have self-imposed boundaries? Especially when airing opinions cause distance and sometimes alienation in relationships? I’ve been thinking recently about the consequences of posting on a public forum and unabashedly sharing such opinions. As Abe Lincoln knew, some of them popular to some, but not all; some of them repellent or offensive to some, but not all. An opinion is nothing more than a personal belief. As such, it vexes me why stating one’s opinion could ever offend another person. I suppose opinions run the whole gamut of casual musings to utter vehemency and benign remarks about a group or person to truly malicious ones. For practical purposes, let’s say one is just stating a belief which this person clearly believes in to the nth degree. Perhaps an opinion stated with such surity seems like an insult to anyone who would disagree and have similar depth of belief in their opinion. This is where we start treading into a dangerous briar patch though. The only reason I can imagine someone being offended over someone else’s opinion would be that a) either he felt the person was stating their opinion as fact or b) he felt that his opinions, after invested in and developed as a result of years of experience and research, were actually facts. This is where we get into trouble, intolerance and separation. Suddenly, we are holding our ‘opinions’ aloft as the Gospel and by choosing to be offended by others, we are in essence saying that there is no room for them. We have already found the Holy Grail of truth and any others who disagree are clearly “misguided” or “confused.”
Anger and defiance over someone’s opinion (usually equally as strong), when it does not match with our own is nothing short of intolerance and arrogance. How can we get to a place where we agree to disagree? Whatever happened to those days of true and gallant civility? Why does disagreeing with a person have to call into question their very validity and perspective as an individual human being? Do we really believe that only 5%, 10% or even 80% have a monopoly on all of the ‘correct’ opinions or beliefs. Opinions are not facts; to blur this line and begin to impose them on others with fervor or to take offense at a statement of opposing belief is ludicrous.
Let’s look at the definition of freedom up close:
What strikes me the most: an exemption from external control, interference or regulation; also, an absence or release from ties or obligations the power to exercise choice and make decisions without constraint from within or without; autonomy; self-determination. Let’s apply this definition to speech and airing of one’s opinions. In order to have true freedom of speech, one needs to feel free to air one’s beliefs and opinions without punishment or constraints from the outside. This could be in the form of a withdrawal of friendship or love if you’re stating opinions that are not inalignment with theirs religiously, politically or morally. To an extreme, one might also face constraints of a grave nature like a censored internet if opinions and beliefs shared are not in alignment with the agenda of the governemental powers that be, physical threats or death. As human beings, we like to pay lip service to freedom of speech and encourage people to do so, but after they speak we punish them in myriad ways if their beliefs are in disagreement with ours. How can we make another person’s beliefs moot? It is impossible. Each individual soul has just as much right as anyone else to be on this planet. We all have our individual lessons to learn and at different rates. I do not believe that there are a select few who after much refinement, study or soul-searching have finally found all of the answers that have plagued man or even none of the answers. We do have our experiences, our hearts and our beliefs – and no one can ever question or disparage those. Punishment for expressing the ‘wrong’ opinions is oppression, pure and simple. So the next time someone’s opinion pushes your button and you find yourself getting self-righteous and defiant, let’s take a step back and pause, and remember that there is enough room for all opinions and beliefs without one cancelling another out. Who knows, through exercising tolerance, we may even find ourselves loosening our grip on our own beliefs long enough to open our minds and hearts to truly listen and make room for others at the table.