Harassment, or freedom of speech?

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Last time in this column, I talked about discrimination – what it is, and what it is not, along with some examples. I promised to talk about harassment this time, so let’s go there.

Harassment is tricky territory. While we value and protect freedom of expression, we are also striving for a community where everyone feels safe from hurtful personal attacks, and respected for who they are, even with all our differences of opinion, ethnicity, identity, and religion. U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to this balance when he criticised the recent anti-Islam video, but defended freedom of speech. Obama was quoted in the Globe and Mail (Sept. 25, 2012) as saying to the United Nations, “I accept that people will call me all kinds of awful things every day, and I will always defend their right to do so.”  So doesn’t that right suggest free reign with our words?  No, it doesn’t.

While we may have a right to freedom of expression, in terms of expressing opinions, pursuing debate, and challenging assumptions, that freedom can be exercised respectfully. True freedom of expression is not in flinging insults or flourishing profanity for the sake of flaunting power or intimidating others. True freedom of expression is when everyone feels safe to express differences of opinion, to share and debate without personal insult, to be vehement and strong about our views, without destroying the other person in the process. As Fisher and Ury (1991) said in “Getting to YES: Separate the people from the problem. Be soft on the people, hard on the problem.”  In other words, use our words to deal with the problem, the disagreement, the matters of opinion, without making it personal.

So where does that put harassment? Harassment is defined in the UNB policy as “Behaviour that has no legitimate purpose, which the instigator knows or ought reasonably to know, has the effect of creating an intimidating, humiliating, hostile or offensive environment.”  There is plenty of room in there for freedom of expression, which has a legitimate purpose, and is not humiliating or intimidating.

Harassment is behaviour that degrades a person for the purpose of exerting power over them. Examples include constantly pushing one’s views past everyone else’s, excluding the quieter person’s ideas; repeated critical, humiliating comments; unrelenting pursuit when a clear boundary ought to be known or has been expressed. Harassment includes behaviours of all kinds – inappropriate physical actions, sounds or gestures; offensive signs or cartoons; refusing to communicate with people, where communication is a reasonable expectation. Harassment erodes a person’s confidence and sense of safety in our community. It degrades both people – the target because of the oppression that results, and the instigator because of the illegitimate abuse of power. What legitimate power and strength derive from disrespectful treatment of others?  None. Legitimate power and strength derive from profound respect for others, expressed to empower them, and expanding the synergy that results. Harassment in the extreme is dictatorship; respect in the extreme is democracy.

As a community, and as individuals, we are called upon to use our freedom of expression respectfully with one another. Exercise your rights with respect for the rights of others.