There is a fine line between free speech and bullying. The idea behind free speech is to promote the freedom of thought and expression to support a richness and diversity of ideas. This freedom can lead to social change and cultural shifts–for example, the women’s suffrage movement and the rise against racial segregation.

In recent years, that fine line seems to have gotten so thin, it is hard to see. Maybe this is why so many people are crossing it and getting their feet tangled. Tripping over their logic and justifying name calling, online harassment and bullying as free speech. I don’t think personal attacks were ever meant to be (nor need to be) part of the fabric of our society accepted as a social norm…so why is it on the rise?

What has shifted so much in our culture that we think being a bully and abusive towards others is acceptable under the guise of free speech? Where did we lose compassion, tolerance and acceptance?

When I look at the USA, I have to wonder if this behaviour is being accepted or is it more that people simply don’t have the energy to get engaged? Maybe we are too passive? Tired? Complacent? Defeated? These are the answers I get when I ask people what stops them from stepping in.

Closer to home, an example can be found by looking at how Remembrance Day is honoured. How many people don’t even take a minute out of their day to acknowledge or celebrate it compared to those who celebrate it as a long weekend?  If it wasn’t for those folks and the war, and their efforts advocating for our future rights, we wouldn’t have the luxury of ignoring it.

Maybe something is lost in the passing down of the why it is important.This history is an important part of the experience of community and culture. We start losing things when we lose sight of the importance along the way and I think that’s where some of the complacency comes in when it comes to the abuse of free speech.

As a society, we’ve become more focused on self rather than the world as a whole. Technology has simultaneously opened up our world and made it easier to be voyeurs in our own space. Human interaction has become optional instead of compulsory. It’s hard to feel compassion for others when we are all so disconnected. 

Cultural and generational norms also play a part in the growing disconnect and general sense of discombobulation. These influence how our individual values are shaped, and these feed into what our overall culture/society looks like.

Together, complacency and prevailing cultural norms creates part of the problem. If there is an idea that doesn’t fit into the middle of the road, it is labelled as “different”, and the person generating the idea as “other” or not us. These people might have something really great to contribute to society, but we are unwilling to listen or have a conversation because the idea seems to far out there…and this is where the line becomes really tangled in terms of dismissing ideas, and by proxy, people.

When ideas are invalidated, then we invalidate the person. It seems then acceptable to attack, not just the idea we don’t understand, but the person attached to it. This is NOT free speech in action. This is bullying.

As a society, we are more comfortable with similarity. We don’t hunt out friends who are radically different than us…but that doesn’t make it ok to launch a verbal attack on those who are different than us. Diversity is the strength and foundation that our current world is built on.

This is most apparent in politics–especially in the USA. It is starting to happen more and more in Canada too. Where did the rules of conduct go? When we resort to attacking others, we lose an opportunity to bridge a gap or create an understanding of the world and create a polarizing position and isolation.

Next time you see something that blurs the line between free speech and bullying, I challenge you to step up. If more of us stepped in and rejected complacency, I think we might start to see the return of tolerance, compassion and understanding–and I think we can all use some of that.

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