When you say “First Amendment”, everybody automatically knows what you mean even if they are not from United States. Even though we can probably take it for granted that people know what that means, I’m going to give a quick capsule synopsis here just to make sure. Although the actual text of the U.S. Constitution has a lot of different wording, such as “Congress shall not etc.”, here is my working definition of ”freedom of speech”, sourced from a Google definition:
The right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint.
This is great. But, like the man said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The counterpoint to this right is that we then bear the responsibility for how what we chose to say is received.
This is oftentimes forgotten. About 15 years ago I was part of the web community who coined the phrase “you do not have the right to not be offended,” and while I agree with that sentiment to this day, it does not mean that you are free to offend with impunity.
Oh sure, you do have the right to offend people. Make no mistake, you are free as a human being to be as offensive as you choose to anyone you choose. but, if you choose this action, you’re also choosing to face the consequences: if somebody is offended by your actions, that offense is your responsibility.
Even if it was not your intention to offend anyone.
Too often we dismiss this by saying that, because we didn’t mean it, it is of no consequence and that intent it what matters. Sometimes, we’ll even say that it is the responsibility if the person feeling the bite of our words to get clarification, to see if that’s what we really meant. Seldom, but often enough to mention, we’ll even say that people should just toughen up and learn to not be so sensitive.
To those points, I say “Wrong“. And since it is now my responsibility to ensure my words are taken in the right light, here is the explanation:
I can choose whether or not to say things. You cannot choose whether or not to hear them.
Words are all-powerful: in order to know if something is offensive to you or not, you must first read or hear it. By that token, it’s in your head regardless of the flavor.
I am the only person who knows what I really mean.
You can assume or infer my intent, but in the end I am the only person who gets to occupy your skull. You can give me the benefit of every doubt but in the end if I chose not to explain something (or explain it poorly), you have nothing but your own opinion on which to base your judgement.
Your reaction is my responsibility because the care I put in to my words directly effects my relationship to you.
If I don’t examine something from the recipients perspective before I tweet it, that means simply that I don’t care how they will view it. And if I don’t care how it makes them feel, how can I say I care about them at all?
“So wait“, I hear you say, “this sounds like you’re saying that before I post something on my blog, I have to consider how each and every person who reads it is going to interpret it?”
The answer is “No, you don’t *have* to. But why wouldn’t you want to?”
“I don’t have time to think about how someone I’ve never met in a country I’ve never visited *might* be offended by what I say.”
Simply put, communication with humans is a gamble: You are betting on how your audience will receive what you say. It’s really just a function of “how much risk am I willing to accept?”
Are you willing to accept a lot of risk, for the exchange of not spend the extra time not considering other perspectives? Then, by all means, do that: but also accept the responsibility.
Do you want to minimize your risk and spend a lot of time massaging your words to make the unambiguous for everyone, everywhere? Then you’ve decided you want less risk, but you still have the responsibility. Freedom of Speech always brings risk, and your risk there will always be greater then zero.
“I don’t really care if people are offended by what I say, that’s their problem.“
You don’t have to care what people think of you, but if you claim that perk then you also accept the labels that come with it. In the words of Ed Brayton:
“If you spend a great deal of your time pretending to be an asshole to get a reaction from people…you aren’t pretending. You are an asshole.”
“I didn’t mean to offend that person, I just don’t have good social skills.”
Then change. Seriously.
Social skills are, by and large, learned. Empathy, to some extent, is built-in to varying degrees but it is totally possible to learn to be empathic toward others if you skills are lacking.
Remember: if you can change your behavior and choose not to, it is exactly the same as choosing that behavior. If you have ability to learn better social skills and choose not to, you are choosing to be antisocial.
Well, my preaching is over for now. In closing let me say that I am in no way immune to anything I’ve said here. In my 30+ years of using digital communications I have offended, unintentionally and otherwise, countless people. I have been branded an asshole at times and, to the extent that I haven’t fixed my bad traits, I have earned that title. I, like the rest of us, am still learning and am still human.
I have strived to offend as little as I could here, but if I have: I’m sorry, and I take responsibility for it.