How free is freedom of expression?

The term freedom of expression, which includes freedom of speech, has been thrown around a lot lately, from university campuses to grocery stores to courtrooms. But do we even know what it means to have freedom of expression or what that freedom looks like? Let’s start with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1):

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration in and of itself does not impose any limits on freedom of expression. Neither does the First Amendment of the US constitution (2):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Before we delve into the intricacies of freedom of expression, I should warn you that this post will probably ask more questions than provide answers; this is intentional. The reason for that is, first of all, I do not have a formal training in law. Secondly, the main purpose of this post is to actually ignite discussion and conversation. The other purpose of this discussion is to challenge us to think more deeply about what we think we know and what other explanations can tell us. Ultimately, we all must come to our own conclusions.

Freedom of expression is a two-way street

Freedom of expression should apply to all humans (even though some autocratic governments might disagree with this), so everyone has the same freedom to express their opinions. That also means we have the freedom to challenge and critique each other’s opinion. Challenging an opinion is a form of expression. Freedom of expression doesn’t mean one can say whatever they want and then get mad when someone challenges their opinion. If one chooses to put their thoughts and opinions out there, they are also inviting those thoughts and opinions to be critiqued.

Freedom of expression doesn’t mean we are free from consequences that arise from things we say or opinions we express. This is not a limitation of freedom of expression. This is merely being responsible for our actions and expressions. If someone expresses a hateful opinion and loses their job because of it, that is not a limitation of their freedom of expression, that is them being held accountable for something they have said. Suppose you are sitting in a crowded theatre (hopefully in a world without COVID). Someone decides to exercise their freedom of expression and yell “fire,” out of nowhere. Everyone panics and rushes towards an exit. On their way out a few people get injured in the chaos. Should we hold the person who yelled “fire” accountable or should we say since they had the freedom to express their opinion, that’s totally fine? (3)

Freedom of expression is a basic human right and thus, all of us humans should have the right to it. (1) To ensure that is the case, we have laws so that our collective freedom of expression is protected. Some people might argue that adding more laws, for example banning hate speech, fraud or obscenity, is jeopardizing our freedom of expression. While it might be technically true that by adding laws, we could be limiting the freedom of expression for some, there is a very simple answer for that: We live in societies and we are bound to have clashes between each other’s freedoms. Those laws are there to protect us in case of these clashes.

Tyranny of the majority

One major flaw that has been attributed to majority rule is that it can give rise to the tyranny of the majority. (4) If you are in the majority, chances are you enjoy the benefit of having elected representatives pass the kinds of laws you support, you have the freedom to express yourself more easily, have more people that agree with your opinions, your opinions have (most probably) been previously expressed by others and you don’t have to go through the trouble of advocating for them, and your basic rights are protected without having to go through multiple hoops. In many cases, minority groups would have to advocate for the same rights the majority readily enjoys. For an example, refer to the case of civil rights protections for transgender workers that was just recently ruled by the US Supreme Court. (5)

Over the years, we have realized that democracy should protect the rights of the minorities as well as the rights of the majority. Therefore, some countries have divided the power structure into legislative, executive and judiciary branches. Some have conducted (or have learned to conduct) consultations with minority groups before proceeding with projects that affect them (for example, when choosing team names that make use of terms related to indigenous peoples or building pipelines that pass through indigenous reserves). Some have introduced pieces of law such as Bill of Rights and some have given minority groups platforms to express themselves and to advocate for their rights.

Social media platforms have been a double-edged sword in this regard. On the one hand, they have given a platform to minorities to freely express themselves. On the other hand, their algorithms have been designed to show the “best/hottest/most upvoted” comment at the top (i.e. majority’s opinion) and to learn the most from the data that is abundantly available (i.e. data from the majority), which accentuates the majority’s opinions and thoughts. This goes more into the concept of bias and more specifically, confirmation bias, which is beyond the purpose of this post (refer to further reading items 7 and 8). All of this is to say that freedom of expression should include everyone, and that means minorities are included as well.

Academic freedom

There is a lot of debate going on between opponents and proponents of unlimited freedom of expression in academia. Should there be a limit to our freedom to express? If so, who gets to decide where that line is drawn? In fact, I would argue that we are not debating free speech, but rather where and how to draw a line between morally acceptable and morally unacceptable speech.

Universities have been under scrutiny for not letting specific talks and/or debates to happen on their campuses. Students are scrutinized for being “snowflakes” and being triggered by opposing opinions. Some argue that universities are marketplaces for ideas and should let controversial debates happen for people to make their decisions themselves. I do believe that universities are the breeding grounds for opinions, and different types of opinions should be allowed to be expressed and subsequently analyzed and challenged. However, universities are where knowledge grows. For knowledge to grow, we need well-informed and reasoned ideas to come to fruition and for that to happen, we need open-minded debates, not name-callings and hate speech. Again, the question is: what is considered hate speech and what is not?

As far as the human rights declaration and the US constitution go, there are no lines drawn for hate speech and understandably so. These are discussed in case laws and legislations that define and rule on hate speech. For instance, Canada has specific human rights legislations and multiple case laws on this matter. (6)

If a speaker has a history of name-calling, racist and sexist speech and is not there to actually further the realm of knowledge, I’m not sure what the benefit of that person speaking on a university campus is. If our initial reasoning for them being there was to have an open discussion and challenge people to think, hate speech is not conducive to that. For example, how is calling a specific race “lazy” or a specific gender “not real” going to help spark an open debate?

Most college students in the US, when surveyed, agreed that they want hate speech banned. The numbers are higher when you ask minority students. (7) You know why? I suspect (keyword being suspect) that these students are probably the ones that are being attacked in those name-callings and discriminatory speeches. So, who should we listen to when inviting speakers to campuses? The students who are going to listen and learn from them, people who might be affected or victimized by this kind of expression, or the people outside of colleges that probably have no relations whatsoever to students or the affected individuals? Students might be biased, sure, but as are the people who are not directly involved with campuses.

Asking speakers who are going to be speaking on campuses to use the correct terminology (for example gender vs sex or indigenous vs native) is not banning free speech, it’s making sure that the campuses are actually a breeding ground for knowledge, and not for hate or for incorrect assertions. We won’t invite someone who doesn’t know the difference between theory and hypothesis to speak to us about genetics, because arguably this person doesn’t know how science works and we wouldn’t want them spreading false information. With the same logic, why should we invite someone to talk about gender, when they don’t know the difference between gender and sex? And you can easily generalize this to other fields as well.

It’s not just about freedom of expression

Reducing all human rights to only freedom of expression is misguided and short-sighted at best. Basic human rights include many other freedoms and rights as well. Articles 5 and 12 of the human rights declaration, respectively, assert (1):

No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

(emphasis mine)

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

This means that people’s reputation is also a protected human right and one can’t just attack someone’s reputation citing freedom of expression and their rights. The world and our interactions with it, its components and other humans are much more complex than one would think. We can’t just reduce them to one article of the human rights declaration (or even a few articles, for that matter) and call it a day. Even the declaration itself is general at best and we need detailed laws and regulations to govern those interactions. A question to think about is: what if my right to freely practice my religion infringes upon your right to security or vice versa? The declaration does not have answer for this. This is something that legislations and case laws would deal with.

Freedom of thought, belief (including religion and lack thereof), opinion and expression are protected in many countries. These countries have laws to protect specific populations and actions as well. For example, perjury, counselling suicide and creating child pornography are expressions but are not allowed in Canada, as well as many other countries. (6) I would be very surprised if the people who think we shouldn’t have limits on freedom of expression would also support the creation of child pornography. Again, the question is: where do we draw the line?

Another point worth making here is that specific types of racist, sexist and xenophobic speech can make a hierarchy of human worth and that is also against the human rights declaration. It is a running thread in the declaration that all humans are equal in rights and there is no hierarchy between them. Someone degrading a certain race or claiming that a specific race is good at math or is stronger than other races is not only making a hierarchy of humans but also reducing those groups of people to those specific traits. These might be considered microaggressions in the short-term, but there are long-term consequences as well. What if a member of that group is not good at math or is not stronger than their peers? Wouldn’t that make them feel less than their peers? So, not only does this make a hierarchy of humans based on which groups they are a member of, it also makes a hierarchy within those groups. As a matter of fact, I don’t see what good would come out of expressing these (false) claims in the first place.

Some more examples to think about

Most of you might remember the bakery that refused to bake a cake for a homosexual couple’s wedding. At the time, the camp of people supporting the bakery claimed that this was OK, because “it was based on their values” and that businesses should not be pushed to do things they don’t want to do. This most probably was coming from a place of privilege. People in that camp were probably not refused services because of their identity. I don’t think these people would have been OK with that bakery refusing to provide services to white people or people of colour or bald people or men or tall people, and the list can go on.

This debate came up again during the current COVID pandemic, when specific businesses decided that they will require a mask for customers to enter their premises. I can’t say for sure where the people that thought the bakery had the right to refuse specific customers would stand on the issue of masking. However, if we agree that businesses have the right to refuse a specific group, what they are doing now is essentially that. They are freely expressing themselves, as are the people not wearing masks. But the consequence of not wearing a mask in this situation is the businesses not allowing them into their premises, which is a right they hold as well.

I would argue here that the difference between the bakery’s refusal to bake a cake for a homosexual couple and a business’s denial of services to people not wearing masks is a bit deeper than that. The bakery in question refused a specific group based on their identity, something the customers do not have control over (refer to the examples above). A business requiring customers to wear masks is refusing a specific group based on something they have almost full control over: wearing a mask or not wearing one for a short period of time (for example, while they are shopping). One can argue that there are people that might have trouble wearing a mask and I’m not denying that. However, there is good evidence that no healthy person should have a problem wearing masks. If someone is unhealthy enough that can’t wear a mask, they should be isolating themselves, because chances are, they are the most susceptible to getting infected by the SARS-CoV2 virus.

Another example that comes to mind in terms of freedom of expression is kneeling during the national anthem. Is it OK for someone to kneel during the national anthem? Is that not freedom of expression? If this is OK, can someone kneel as a form of protest to show their dissatisfaction with something? If yes, how minor or serious does that dissatisfaction need to be for this to be OK? Is burning the flag of another country OK? If yes, under what circumstances? Is it OK to burn your own country’s flag? If yes, when and why? You see, there are a lot of questions and there may not be simple yes or no answers for them. Most of these are ethical questions and their complexities stem from the fact that the world we live in is too complex for us to answer questions like these with a simple yes or no.

I hope this post got you thinking about this matter a little further and I would be happy for you to exercise your right to freedom of expression in the comments section and let me know what you think. Please feel free to share this article with others and ignite conversations in your circles.

I would like to thank Spencer Millis for his edits to this article. You can see his articles on conversion therapy ban and universal basic income, here and here, respectively.



Further Reading


Triggers and our behavioural responses — Are we as innocent as we think we are?

I normally keep whatever I learn from books to myself. I still take notes, sometimes leave reviews on Goodreads, and use the things I’ve learned in my day-to-day life, but very rarely I write about them on my blog. I touched upon a book in another blog post before that I encourage you to go take a look at, but today, I’m going to review a book that was on my Wishlist for a while now. Buckle up for a short review of Triggers: Creating Behaviour That Lasts — Becoming the person you want to be!

Triggers is a fantastic book written by an expert author, Marshall Goldsmith. Goldsmith is a leadership coach that has coached multiple world renown leaders, the likes of Alan Mulally of Ford Motor Company and Jim Yong Kim of the World Bank. He points out some very simple behaviours and reactions that we do day in and day out, but we don’t notice how profoundly they affect us or the people around. His book tries to give us an insight into how we manage to let ourselves down when we know how to lift ourselves up, whether we are the CEO of an international conglomerate or not.

Goldsmith starts with presenting a clever 4-quadrant matrix of “what we want and need,” “what we don’t want, but need,” “what we don’t need, but want” and “what we neither need nor want.” Trying to do more of the first category and less of the last is something we could always work on and Triggers gives us some insights based on previous experience.

The book categorizes leadership into four different styles. Some employees need directing. You need to give them exact instructions and make sure they follow them to the period. Some need coaching: you give them the instructions and ask them what they think and if they want to tweak it before getting their hands dirty. Some need supporting. That’s when you tell them what the task is and ask for their input on instructions and how it should be done. And there is delegating. You give the assignment. You are there if they need any help, but they are on their own for the most part, because they have proven that they can do it.

Triggers talks about how different employees, based on their level of satisfaction with their jobs, their personalities, etc., could fit into the “employee engagement wheel.” An employee can be committed, i.e. genuine with clients/customers. That’s when (s)he is actively and positively engaged. If the employee is passively but still positively engaged, (s)he is a professional. However, employees could also be cynical or hostile. When they are indifferent to customers and bored with their jobs, they become the former (passive and negative) and when they dislike their jobs and can’t tolerate customers, that’s when they are the latter (actively negative). We encounter employees from all four of the these categories everyday and it’s not a surprise that we fit into one of the four as well. Knowing which one we fit into could help us improve and move to a better category that will not only help us become a better person, but also help people around us be happy as well.

Another concept I really liked in this book is the “wheel of change.” It shows us how the concepts changing, keeping, positive and negative could be combined to end up with creating positive changes, preserving current positive attributeseliminating negative attributes and accepting the negative aspects we can’t change. This might be a simple idea or just a reminder of what we already know, but we rarely act on it and put together a list with these titles in it.

Goldsmith also teaches us the distinction between asking passive vs active questions. When we ask how well someone performed, we are asking passive questions and this gives the person the ability to use their environment as an excuse. But, when we ask how much they tried, they have to think about what they did themselves. This, once again, emphasizes the fact that we are superior planners, but inferior doers: something the author likes to point out every so often.

I’m the type of person that doesn’t need constant supervision or follow-ups to get something done, excluding some friendly nudges here and there of course, but that doesn’t mean I can be successful without structure. This book made me rethink the importance of structure. In Goldsmith’s own words, “structure not only increases our chance of success, it makes us more efficient at it.” Having a routine doesn’t make us or our lives boring, it gives it structure. Developing a daily active questions list helps us in giving our lives even more meaning. One of the reasons is that we perform better when we know we will be tested, regardless of who the tester is and if we know the questions ahead of the time.

“Marginal motivation produces a marginal outcome,” is another great quote in the book. If we want to improve, we have to accept that we have flaws and weaknesses and then start woking on ourselves. Most of us deceive ourselves into thinking that the real us is the one that has all our strengths, not the one that also includes our weaknesses. Just because we don’t acknowledge the existence of our flaws, doesn’t mean they are nonexistent. We drag them with ourselves wherever we go.

I also like how Goldsmith suggests a cycle for behaviour and trigger called “circle of engagement.” A trigger leads to an impulse that leads to awareness. We make choice(s) based on that and a behaviour comes out. That behaviour itself becomes a trigger and the cycle continues.

If you want to know more about each of these concepts and more, be sure to get your hands on a copy of the book and start reading. You won’t regret it!

Forty Reasons to Stay Alive

Life is tough, but it is also beautiful. It can put you in pain for some time and make you feel happy some other time. It can give you a reason to cry some time, but it can also make you laugh. As you can see, there are a lot of sides to life and the way to experience them is to stay alive. Having heard a lot about a book by Matt Haig, I started reading “Reasons to Stay Alive.” It is not a long read (in fact less than 200 pages on the version available through my city’s library). Although I wish he would have talked more about his journey of recovery from the elephant in the room, i.e. anxiety and depression, I enjoyed every bit of it, especially because it comes from someone who has had a first-hand experience of how tough life can get. There is a section in the book that lists 40 reasons to stay alive and I wanted to share those with the readers of my blog along with some comments of my own (my comments start after the dashes). So, here it is:

  1. Appreciate happiness when it is there.
  2. Sip, don’t gulp. – When we are gulping through any drink, we are not enjoying what that drink has to offer, it is as if we are in a hurry to be done with the glass. But when we are sipping it, we give time to our organs, whether internal or external, to understand what that drink really is.
  3. Be gentle with yourself. Work less. Sleep more. – We are living in a world today that work is defining who we are. Think about your answer to the question “Who are you?” Aren’t we answering with our job title any time we are asked that question? The reason most often being that we spend a lot of time working, we forget how else we can be defined. Maybe we could go on that vacation we’ve been dreaming about for a long time or get that good night’s sleep we’ve been craving for the last few weeks.
  4. There is absolutely nothing in the past that you can change. That’s basic physics. – Then why worry about changing what’s already been done.
  5. Beware of Tuesdays. And Octobers.
  6. Kurt Vonnegut was right. ‘Reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found.’ – I can attest to this through personal experience. I feel great whenever I read or write.
  7. Listen more than you talk. – Good listeners make great speakers. Don’t quote me on that though! 🙂
  8. Don’t feel guilty about being idle. More harm is probably done to the world through work than idleness. But perfect your idleness. Make it mindful. – Personally, I don’t like being idle, and I would argue that if you are making your idleness mindful, you are not really idle!
  9. Be aware that you are breathing. – This is a great reminder. There are a lot of things that we take for granted in life. I think this one tops the list!
  10. Wherever you are, at any moment, try and find something beautiful. A face, a line out of a poem, the clouds out of a window, some graffiti, a wind farm. Beauty cleans the mind.
  11. Hate is a pointless emotion to have inside you. It is like eating a scorpion to punish it for stinging you. – Washing blood with blood is not going to work. Sometimes, educating the hater might be a good idea, but sometimes you have to leave the hater alone. You can’t teach the scorpion not to sting, for example!
  12. Go for a run. Then do some yoga.
  13. Shower before noon.
  14. Look at the sky. Remind yourself of the cosmos. Seek out vastness at every opportunity, in order to see the smallness of yourself.
  15. Be kind.
  16. Understand that thoughts are thoughts. If they are unreasonable, reason with them, even if you have no reason left. You are the observer of your mind, not its victim.
  17. Do not watch TV aimlessly. Do not go on social media aimlessly. Always be aware of what you are doing, and why you are doing it. Don’t value TV less. Value it more. Then you will watch it less. Unchecked distractions will lead you to distraction.
  18. Sit down. Lie down. Be still. Do nothing. Observe. Listen to your mind. Let it do what it does without judging it. Let it go, like the Snow Queen in Frozen.
  19. Don’t worry about things that probably won’t happen. – i.e. don’t overthink!
  20. Look at trees. Be near trees. Plant trees. (Trees are great.)
  21. Listen to that yoga instructor on YouTube, and ‘walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet’.
  22. Live. Love. Let go. The three Ls.
  23. Alcohol maths. Wine multiplies itself by itself. The more you have, the more you are likely to have. And if it’s hard to stop at one glass, it will be impossible at three. Addition is multiplication.
  24. Beware of the gap. The gap between where you are and where you want to be. Simply thinking of the gap widens it. And you end up falling through. – I think it’s good to remind yourself of your goals, but only when you have done something to get closer to it, which will give you even more motivation to get even more closer. But, if you haven’t taken any action recently, reminding yourself of your goals is not going to make things any better and it might even make them worse.
  25. Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end. – Refer to number 2 above as well!
  26. No drug in the universe will make you feel better, at the deepest level, than being kind to other people.
  27. Listen to what Hamlet, literature’s most famous depressive, told Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. ‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ – There is still a lot of debate on the topic of good and bad and whether things are innately good or bad or are we making them so. I think this quote sums it up really nicely.
  28. If someone loves you, let them. Believe in that love. Live for them, even when you feel there is no point. – That point might come later. Not every point in life starts showing itself as a point or purpose.
  29. You don’t need the world to understand you. It’s fine. Some people will never really understand things they haven’t experienced. Some will. Be grateful. – As a social person, I’m guilty of this. I try to make connections with a lot of people and when they don’t understand me, I get upset or think about what I did or said. We have to let them be. Not everyone we meet is going to end up being our BFF or SO or even our acquaintance!
  30. Jules Verne wrote of the ‘Living Infinite’. This is the world of love and emotion that is like a ‘sea’. If we can submerge ourselves in it, we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
  31. Three in the morning is never the time to try and sort out your life. – But it might be the time for the brain to try and sort out all the inputs it has received during the day and get rid of the tiredness that comes with those.
  32. Remember that there is nothing weird about you. You are just a human, and everything you do and feel is a natural thing, because we are natural animals. You are nature. You are a hominid ape. You are in the world and the world is in you. Everything connects. – Speaking of nature, I agree that most of the things we do are natural. They are in our nature. We are all weird and normal at the same time. Whether you want to be a weirdly normal or a normally weird person, is the choice you are going to make.
  33. Don’t believe in good or bad, or winning and losing, or victory and defeat, or up and down. At your lowest and at your highest, whether you are happy or despairing or calm or angry, there is a kernel of you that stays the same. That is the you that matters.
  34. Don’t worry about the time you lose to despair. The time you will have afterwards has just doubled its value.
  35. Be transparent to yourself. Make a greenhouse for your mind. Observe.
  36. Read Emily Dickinson. Read Graham Greene. Read Italo Calvino. Read Maya Angelou. Read anything you want. Just read. Books are possibilities. They are escape routes. They give you options when you have none. Each one can be a home for an uprooted mind. – And as the famous saying goes ‘you have lived as many lives as the number of books you have read.’ Each and every book gives you a perspective on life. You look at life from the point of view of a different person and you could be one of those different people one day. That day you will have at least as many options as that person had in that book.
  37. If the sun is shining, and you can be outside, be outside.
  38. Remember that the key thing about life on earth is change. Cars rust. Paper yellows. Technology dates. Caterpillars become butterflies. Nights morph into days. Depression lifts. – And change brings happiness. Wear that tie you haven’t tried on since you bought, change the decoration of your office, change the way you look at people, change your point of view on things you do everyday and you will see happiness dripping through your life.
  39. Just when you feel you have no time to relax, know that this is the moment you most need to make time to relax. – ‘I don’t have time’ is basically a euphemism for ‘It’s not a priority.’ Make time for priorities. We need somethings to be able to even perceive ‘time’ and relaxing is one of them.
  40. Be brave. be strong. Breathe, and keep going. You will thank yourself later. – I don’t know why, but this reminded me of what Ed Latimore said on a podcast I listened a while ago: Running is not always enjoyable, but neither is being physically unfit. Working out can be painful and having a non-fit body can be painful as well. The difference is that you will have a fit body if you go through the pain of working out, but you won’t see any changes going through the pain of having an unhealthy body. So choose which pain you want to experience.

I really recommend reading the complete book, not only to those who sometimes feel low in life, but to anyone, because this book can also give you an idea of what some people might be going through and will maybe help you help someone who is in need of your support. On a related note, let’s tackle the issue of mental health and make sure we are paving the way to finally destigmatize it!

We don’t talk anymore!

You may think that I’m going to talk about how anti-social we humans have become. But, while I don’t agree with that statement, that’s a topic for a later post. This time, it is about how we have managed to pass laws and/or common norms that have made us afraid to talk to the people we don’t know, or even to the people we know! There have been times I had to think twice before stating a very neutral opinion on a topic just because someone “might” get “offended” and even ended up not saying it! Taking offence from others’ opinions has become a way of showing how educated we are, at least sometimes for some people.

Asking for trigger warnings in classrooms before professors discuss a “sensitive” topic and labeling anything you say as “microaggression” are things that are done on university campuses more often now. We, people of academia, should be able to take jokes, to discuss “sensitive” matters and to educate others on how to react to such things. What will happen if we didn’t do these? Well, I think it is already happening: We are not addressing some of the very important topics in the world. For instance, by saying “I don’t see color/race,” we are not addressing the issue of racism, we are just ignoring it while it continues to ruin some people’s lives.

Of course, it is worth mentioning that there is a difference between hate speech and free speech. These statements don’t mean that we get a free pass to spew hate on people or ideas, or give us a get out of jail free card when we do so. When we hate on someone just because they are Black or Asian or we associate someone’s feelings of superiority to their ‘Whiteness” or when we call them terrorists just because they “look Muslim,” we are spreading hate speech. However, when we are logically and rationally criticizing an ideology or we are scientifically researching a disease that is more common in the Black community than other communities, we are doing our jobs of looking after our world and the people living in it.

All this being said, education plays an important role in understanding the technicalities of the world and (healthy) discussions and debates are some of the key components of such education. So, let’s not wait to be coddled while a sensitive subject is being discussed or debated, instead let’s share our ideas of the matter with others and get into healthy debates with people with differing ideas. That way not only we are trying to solve an important problem, we are doing so by engaging in human interaction and that is another important aspect of our lives.

This article was inspired by an article I read a while ago on The Atlantic.

Constructive feedback and criticism

Having been a judge in different fairs and conferences for pre-secondary, secondary and post-secondary students, I have had my fair share of listening to students presenting their work, asking them questions both to clarify what they have said and to evaluate them, scoring them based on their research topic, methods, presentation and expertise, and giving them feedback on how they did and how they could potentially improve or do more. I have always heard from the more experienced judges that the feedback should be constructive, regardless of the student’s level and I have tried to implement that to the best of my ability. The problem with this approach most often is that some of us don’t know what constructive feedback really means!

Let’s start with what constructive feedback is not. Constructive feedback is not necessarily an all-positive feedback. It is also not unduly beating around the bush before getting to a point that might upset the person. It is not faking interest and awe when what you have just heard or seen is not up to the expected level. It does not mean evaluating things you are not supposed to evaluate, either, for instance, how great (or awful, for that matter) the personality of the person is (unless, of course, this is what you are evaluating).

Now, on to the constructive feedback itself. Constructive feedback means that you are paving the way for the person to improve. Hence, commenting on things that the person can actually control and/or change. This also means that you are telling the person what is already up to the standards and what is not. Therefore, it is good to start with the strengths and move on to the things that need improvement and then summarize at the end. Speaking from experiences, students who present their findings don’t do it as a one-time thing only. They are mostly interested in doing that frequently. Therefore, the more constructive feedback they receive the better their presentation will be the next time around and the more they will appreciate your help as they continue presenting.

Last weekend, I was at a fair, judging a few projects that were presented by students who were in elementary or junior high school and I got the chance to give them feedback and see some of the other feedback sheets that they had gotten. To my surprise most of those feedback sheets had some variation of these words on them: “Great job!” and that’s it! As much as a teenager would like to hear that they did a great job, they need to know what can be improved. There is definitely something that needs to be improved and if you can’t see that as a judge, then you should probably work on your judging skills or present some sort of work and get criticized by other judges before judging someone else’s work. When I get comments from supervisors or other fellow researchers on a document I have written, whether it be a poster or a thesis or a scientific manuscript, I would like to see a “great job here” or “this is awesome” somewhere in the comments. This makes me even more inspired to continue this line of work. But, I also need to know where my weaknesses lie so that I can improve my current work or works that follow. I know that an elementary school student might be very happy to see a “Great job!” on the feedback sheet, but they are going to be our next generation of journalists, scientists, engineers, supervisors, etc. and that is why we need them to know how to fact check, how to work with the facts, and how not to give fake information or information that is not backed up by evidence. And the road to that starts from these fairs and the projects that they do during their early ages. We have a big responsibility here and that is to prepare them for all those.

All things considered, I think starting with what they did right and well, pointing out the areas that need improvement and finishing off by summarizing the points is the best way to give constructive feedback, whether we are the parents, the teachers, the fair judges or friends. As for the parts that may upset the person, it is good to follow the “is it true? is it necessary? and is it kind?” rule. If what we are trying to say will help them improve, then, why not? If we can make it less upsetting and make them comfortable before saying it, even better! Let’s bring up a better next generation, a generation that will learn from their mistakes and use what they have learned from their mistakes to improve and prosper.

Caring about others

We are social animals, at least as the saying goes. We interact with each other, we build relationships and bonds, we say things to each other and sometimes things don’t go the way we want them to. There are people who believe we have become less social mostly because of the technological advances and the internet, but I don’t think that is the case. Instead, I think we have changed the ways we socialize in. We used to visit people when we had the time, now we call or text them instead. We used to write letters, now we write emails and use Skype or Facetime instead and the list goes on. My focus today and in this post is not about how our ways of socialization have changed, but how we are focusing on helping each other, on noticing if someone is going through a tough time, and on caring about mental health.

A few days ago, I watched the Netflix original series “13 Reasons Why,” which is about a teenager that moves to a new town and after a while, as a result of the problems she has with some friends of her at school decides to take her own life. She tells the story of whatever has happened in 7 tapes and passes them on for those friends to listen to after her death. This series could actually be an eye-opener for many of us. There are specific signs to notice when someone has problems. There are signs that they might be thinking of ending it all. Some of these signs are: major lifestyle changes, talking about the purposelessness of life, substance abuse, and isolation from activities, friends and family. Much like medical symptoms, having just one of these might not mean that the person is suicidal, but at least it’s a red flag that needs to be taken seriously. For more information about suicide and its signs, you can visit WebMD and the AFSP websites.

Of course, there is no need to emphasize that we don’t need a person to be suicidal to help them out. It is human nature to care about others. It is an instinctual feeling that draws us towards helping someone in need. However, we have to be better listeners for that to happen. We have to pay more attention and we have to show up and be there for others. We need skills for those, but they are really easy to pick up and learn. Let’s make the world a better place!

Just because we check the guns at the door…

On my way back home from a workshop today, following the same habit of listening to music while reading a book on my iPad during my bus commute, I somehow listened more carefully to the Heathens song from Twenty One Pilots. A part of it actually caught my attention a lot. That is the part that says: “Just because we check the guns at the door, doesn’t mean our brains will change from hand grenades.” I know there are a lot of interpretations for this over the internet and depending on who you think the main audience of this song is, those might be right, but I look at it from a different angle.

I have had a lot of discussion with friends who try to compare different societies to each other and trying to convince themselves that if society A (most often the society they grew up in) had all the laws and tools that society B (most often the society they immigrated to) has, it would have been the same thing; that what has made society B a good society is because they have laws that don’t allow being bad to others, or that teaches its people to smile and be nice, or has a $250 fine for anyone that might abuse the trust the transit system has on people and so on. I’m not saying that laws shouldn’t exist or that laws haven’t had any effect whatsoever on people’s behaviour in general, but in my humble opinion, that’s not the whole story.

Just because you have a law in effect doesn’t mean you’re going to turn out great. You have to be great inside, at least to some extent, for the laws to work or to make you even better. In a societal level, you have to have a lot of inherently nice/good (whatever that means) people in order for the laws to work. I recall that when a teacher in high school came in with a quiz question or two without prior notice we all were upset and we sometimes came up with plans, e.g. for all of us to return the papers blank as a protest and “because we all are doing that, the teacher can’t possibly fail the whole class!” You know what changed all our minds later on? One of the students who knew the answers to the questions! He would’ve started writing and all of a sudden the hypothesis that “the teacher can’t fail all of us,” does not hold true anymore, because at least one of us is not failing and that is when all of us started writing our answers to the quiz questions! Now, imagine in a society, all the people say: “if all of us ran the red lights, the police can’t possibly give all of us tickets!” What’ll the outcome of that society be? Everyone running a red light! But, if you have enough law-abiding citizens, that hypothesis will not hold true here, either! The type of law-abiding citizens that think about their actions and their consequences before attempting them.

If you just take the “gun” away, there are “hand grenades” to be used instead. If you take those away, there are knives and the list goes on. How many laws are you going to pass in order for people to change? The answer is simple: only one! For a society to be prosperous (and I don’t mean it in a spiritual or religious sense) and to progress, you need to pass the laws in the “brains”, you need psychology and you need to put some effort into it. Voting for a new law to increase traffic violation fines or to incarcerate people who plagiarize is not the ultimate answer to the problem, it’s just the pain killer that won’t eradicate the underlying issue or the cause, for that matter. The underlying problem is the brain of the society, which as a side note is not exactly the sum of the brains of the people living in it, but something much more complicated than that. This is where we need sociology, social psychology and psychology in general and of course, to relate it to my advocacy, also science. As a friend always says, “unless you have critical thinkers, your society is already doomed!” Let’s save society A’s before they are doomed!