Is knowledge too powerful?

When I was 14, my parents – usually individually – and I often read together, and one particular book I remember reading with Mum was If Cats Could Fly. In hindsight, it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen – do we really want cats to be able to reach the top shelf of the fridge effortlessly? – but it actually had quite a profound theme.

Picture it: a couple of aliens who have just crash landed on Earth grant two cats the ability to fly. The cats have a heck of a time at first, but because they can go wherever they want now, it’s not long before they are exposed to harsh realities of the world such as factory farming and destruction of the environment. Not surprisingly, they quickly succumb to despair at knowing so much and being powerless to change anything.

What got me thinking about this was my participation in a toxic habit that is all too common in millenials: scrolling through Facebook. I was seeing all these posts and articles that seemed to serve no purpose but to stir up hate towards people of opposing views. Statements about what God apparently wants to happen regarding Brexit. Warnings against getting too friendly with LGBT people. Prejudice towards vegans. You get the picture.

We have more access to knowledge now than ever before. Thanks to the internet, it’s so much easier to spread awareness of issues that, up until now, people have been ignoring. We can make our voices heard, and get closer glimpses of other ways of thinking and living.

But of course, there are two sides to every coin. Now we are more vulnerable. Now it’s easier to tear each other apart over a simple disagreement about a trending topic. We can so easily become both perpetrators and victims of misinformation, because now, stories don’t have to be authentic to be made public. We read things that are toxic to our emotional wellbeing – from prejudiced articles on why people like me are sick to posts saying people in (insert minority) should just deal with it – and then we keep coming back for more.

Well, I do. No, I’m not proud of it.

Do you see the connection? Easy access to knowledge can be a great thing in many ways, but does it also expose us to the darker side of people and the world we live in? People complain that we have less freedom of speech than before, but I think the opposite is true. We have more means of expressing ourselves, and at a time when more people are being given a chance to be heard. And that’s where divisions arise.

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Is freedom of speech really free?

This was a popular topic of debate in my journalism lectures at uni. In fact, some people got so wound up in their freedom of speech that the rest of us would spend the best part of these lectures sitting back and watching, as at least two people passionately argued their stance on free speech, or politics, or whatever. I don’t know if the best part was when someone would still be sulking after the lecture about not getting the last word, or when comments beginning “Your mum” were thrown around. Either way, quality entertainment.

What does freedom of speech really mean anyway? I like to think there’s more to it than simply being able to say what you like, but honestly, that is how most people seem to take it. I was musing on this the other day when I read a Facebook post that was nostalgically remembering the good old days when one could make a joke without having to worry about insulting women, racial minorities, LGBT people, etc. Really, it’s so tough being in a generation where everyone has a voice, not just heterosexual white men…

When people make statements online – for whatever cause – conflict in the comments section will inevitably ensue. And you can bet at least one person will defend their viewpoint by using the “free speech, free country” card. But people who try to be “PC” in their use of speech are stigmatised and mocked. Apparently casual racism, or sexism, or whatever, is fine, but trying to show respect and compassion towards other people makes you subject to ridicule.

And none of this answers my question.

The way I see it is this. Freedom in any form isn’t as simple as being able to do whatever you want, with no regards to the consequences. Think about growing up. You spend your childhood being heavily dependent on your parents, then your teen years testing their boundaries and your own limits. You take matters into your own hands, and when you fail, you get angry when your parents still make sure you get your comeuppance just when you thought you were entitled to more privileges.

But your parents don’t give you more freedom because they stop caring what you do. Rather, they do so because they are trying to trust you to make your own decisions without having to be told. At any stage in our lives, we will inevitably abuse our privileges, and the consequences will be no less real.

Make sense? We are free to voice our opinions, but that doesn’t make it any more ok to attack others. No-one is always fully right or fully wrong. Conflict may be unavoidable, but if you manage it by defending your side without tearing down someone else’s, you’re making a step in the right direction.