Expressing yourself freely is a human right – but it cannot infringe on the rights of others
23 Mar, 2023

Tasnim Alli, Insights & Innovation Lead at Metropolitan GetUp


The human right to freely express ourselves without censorship is essential to South African democracy.


If used positively, it enables us to foster understanding and tolerance among individuals with different opinions. We can learn and grow from healthy debate and looking at life from different perspectives. Businesses also benefit from freedom of speech as it encourages collaboration across sectors and communities and fosters innovation.


Where expressing ourselves intersects with the rights of others

Social media has undoubtedly made it much easier for people to express themselves publicly. However, the line between freedom of speech and hate speech depends on what we say when exercising our human right to freedom of speech.


A quick scan of Twitter or a look at the comments section of any news site will generally see several users posting disparaging insults directed at other users or practicing hate speech, all under the guise of, “I am entitled to express myself!”


But when we use our right to freedom of speech to propagate hate speech or perpetuate negative narratives by dehumanising people and inciting harm – be it physical, mental or emotional – a line is crossed from free speech to hate speech.


Words matter

As the Linguist Anthropologist Dr Shulist puts it, words have the potential to be symbolic acts of violence. The ideas they represent would cause terrible harm if implemented. Even without implementation, these ideas are harmful when publicly stated and justified by those in positions of power. The words we share today could be the seeds of tomorrow’s actions.


It is easy to blame society or social media. However, social media is made up of individuals. Individuals make up a community and communities make up societies, which, in turn, make up a country. We must take responsibility for our words and the ripple effect they might have on our society. We can do that by respectfully sharing our opinions and not creating an ‘othering’ by dehumanising people with these opinions. We cannot degrade, humiliate, and demean those we disagree with. We must encourage the responsible use of this right to express ourselves – to uplift, build and positively contribute to society.


The comments section on social media posts can be both enlightening and entertaining. However, it is crucial to be respectful and consider who may be hurt by what you are about to share. Ask yourself if you would say this to someone face-to-face or how you would feel if someone said it to you or your loved ones. Remember that on the other side of the avatar is a human being reading our comments. Celebrities are often the target of disparaging remarks, whether it be body shaming, insulting their life choices or the art that they produce. Many say you should expect a negative backlash because you put your life in the public eye. However, they are still only human. And human beings are complex, going through many life struggles, and adding hateful, humiliating, or degrading online behaviour to this burden only exacerbates their real-world challenges.


Protect yourself and others

Social media offers the option to protect oneself from seeing hateful or toxic content. Unfortunately, we can’t control what others do. You can protect yourself and others from online abuse by reporting any abusive comments or profiles that you come across. Stay vigilant about who can access your profile information, use privacy settings, and block accounts that spread negative and disparaging comments.


Empowering yourself to take a break from the digital world on occasion, will also help keep your priorities in check and an emphasis on your real-world relationships, which is vital to maintaining a sense of humanity.


What we see online is but one context of a nuanced story. Getting caught up in the façade of it all is too easy, so taking a step back and reminding yourself of what is truly important can be beneficial.




@Tasnim Alli
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