image of Victor Hugo with quote "one can resist the invasion of an army but one cannot resist the invasion of ideas"

A few days ago I heard a brief news item on Radio 4. It was about Stephen Fry who made insulting comments about God on Irish television and the upset his remarks caused. The commentator played a clip from the TV interview giving the listeners an idea about the nature of Fry’s comments. Right after the clip the commentator defended Stephen Fry saying that he was only exercising his “Freedom of Speech.”

This statement made me stop and think.

In the West, we have the privilege to have the freedom to say whatever we want. For some it means getting on the ‘soap box’ and say whatever enters their mind. Others use freedom of speech more wisely to raise our collective awareness and talk publicly about issues that concern the lives of many.

Freedom of speech is a privilege and it comes with responsibilities. We should exercise it carefully. Those who have freedom of speech also have “Freedom of Choice” and I believe these two have to be used together. Before we exercise our privilege of free speech we need to think about what we are trying to achieve with our action and how will it affect others.

Practical wisdom suggests that I think before I speak and I measure up the value and the impact that my message will have on others. Legally I might be entitled to draw offensive images, legally I might be free to say insulting things about God. But I do not have to. I have a choice.

Aristotle wisely suggests that “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Wisdom suggests that I think before I speak and subject my ideas to reasonable scrutiny. What shall my act achieve? Does it serve the higher good or is it just a way to release my anger? Shall my act add to the high level of tension, hatred and negativity in the world? If my answer is yes to the second question then perhaps it is wiser to exercise my freedom of choice and keep my mouth shut or leave my ideas and cartoons unpublished.

Perhaps it is time to talk more about our responsibilities. It is our duty to bring the best out of ourselves and use our talent to serve not only our own interests but also the interest and well-being of others. Wisdom comes with practice and excellence is not a one off act but a repeated, habitual behaviour.

When we focus on giving the best of ourselves to others, consider the consequences of our actions, learn from our mistakes and act more kindly we start to embody the love and kindness that Stephen Fry has so eloquently spoken about on many occasions. It is worth remembering that “We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” (Rohr, R. 1999. Everything Belongs, Crossroad Publishing Company)


This blog is written by Dr Katalin Illes:

Dr Katalin Illes’ combined background in business and humanities studies gives her a unique and valuable perspective on leadership. She is a widely published and internationally respected leader in transformational change, much sought-after as a visiting professor in universities internationally, an inspiring public speaker at high-profile events, and an effective and energetic consultant for large organisations across all sectors.

Her insightful, philosophical and compassionate approach to ethical leadership ensures she connects on a deeply human level with course participants, audiences and clients.

Find out more about Dr Illes and about  Ethical Leadership here.



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