Just over 20 years ago, no one knew who JK Rowling was. She was a single mother in England struggling to feed her child. Then she wrote the wildly successful Harry Potter adventure series for children. Soon she was one of the richest women in Britain. Her novels have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide and the Harry Potter series has been made into 8 highly successful movies. Rowling also became known for philanthropic work, donating large portion of her new found wealth to various charities.
The past few years though, Rowling has become known for something else. She has made several statements which have upset the transgendered community. She has made statements that seem to belittle the struggle of transgendered people. She has made such statements more than once. Faced with such negative backlash, Rowling along with other authors, including Margaret Atwood, have signed a letter saying that free speech is in danger around the world.
This leads us to the crux of the issue today. Should we have total freedom of speech? Or should our speech be curtailed by dictates and norms of society? And who decides what those dictates and norms are?
Firstly, I think in a civil society we should be able to express ourselves. But the big idea there is not my right to express myself but civil. The big idea is that weed to maintain civility in our actions and words. To me such civility means respecting others. It does not allow for hate speech. It in no way condones a way of speaking that promotes racism, homophobia, misogyny, etc. Freedom of speech is a civil right, but it must be done in a civil matter. Non-civil speech- speech that promotes hate, violence, and belittlement of others, is not free speech.
Secondly, and this is hard for many in the world of social media world to understand, not every thought needs to be expressed. We all have hidden biases and prejudices that colour our thoughts. These biases are things that we need to work on. Why am I so upset with purple people? Just because I have these hidden thoughts about purple people does not give me the right to speak out against them.
Thirdly, when we speak, we have to think about who is listening. Twenty-five years ago, JK Rowling would have made statements about transgendered people and no one would have cared. A few people in her circle of friends would have agreed with her, and a few people in her circle of friends would have disagreed with her. Twenty-five years later, Ms. Rowling is an Internationally known writer. Her words suddenly have great import. It is not just a few people who will hear her words. It is millions of people who listen to her now. And in the eyes of some, if she can say things which hurt members of the transgendered community, than maybe I can say similar things as well. Those who influence through literary works, through money, political power and position have an even greater responsibility to ensure that speech and actions promote the civil rights of all people and not the buried fears, prejudices, and misunderstandings of her heart.
While I don't like loud debates with threats of violence, yelling, and hate, I think we are called to dialogue calmly with others to come to a fuller understanding of what our world should be. However all of us have some behaviours that we have to unlearn. All of us need to grow in our understandings of the other and ourselves. Some by position of skill, power, have greater influence than others. It is up to them to model what living in a civilized world is really like- a world of expression in which all are valued and none are diminished. Free expression is wonderful- but it is not carte blanche to spew hatred and violence. Free speech is a tempered freedom. Blessings.