Last night I attended a great event put on by my good friends Bob LeDrew and Cheryl Gain. Censored Out Loud brought local musicians and writers to a small stage at the Raw Sugar Cafe in Ottawa, where they freely expressed themselves, reading and performing works that, over the years, have come under scrutiny and censorship, and in some cases, where the creators of the works have been jailed or even tortured because of their words. The event was a fundraiser for PEN Canada and is part of Freedom To Read Week, which runs from February 20th – 26th.

The whole event got me thinking a lot about our intellectual freedom as participants in the social Web. Last night reminded me how many people in the world do not have the freedom to write or say what they want. There are a few who will do it any way, and risk the severe punishment. But many people are so fearful of the consequences, that they simply choose to stay silent. Along with many of you, I live in a country where I am free to set up this blog, and proceed to write my thoughts on anything I like. I don’t need to fear persecution or torture or death for my words. In fact, I don’t even think about these things as being a possibility when I write. I just write.

Our intellectual freedom is not something to be taken lightly – and yet, so many of us do just that.

We post things on our blogs, or Twitter, or Facebook, and sometimes, people are very critical. They call us out for the things we’ve said or done. We throw hissy fits over what this person said in a comment, or what that person did or didn’t do on their Twitter feed. We question people’s ethics because of one mis-step. We are quick to point out fault in others, especially those who are successful. Often, our first reaction is to get our backs up – we take their criticisms personally, and get super defensive. The whole thing falls apart, and feelings get hurt.

But for what?

One of the things I love most about social media is that it enables dialogue and discourse. We can have heated debates, passionate conversations, and everyone has the intellectual freedom to make their views known. We are very fortunate indeed that our free society allows for this.

So, when I see folks slamming and bashing each other online, gossiping, and engaging in generally un-constructive critical behaviour, I can’t help but feel we’re missing the point.  I’m not trying to be all self-righteous about this – I am as guilty of some of these things as others.

But when I stop to think about the fact that my fight to free speech and intellectual freedom – the right my Grandfathers fought for – is being used to cut others down, instead of moving conversations and debates forward, and making real change, I am saddened. I’m sad for all of those people who don’t have the same rights we do. I wonder if they had this right, if they would abuse it the way we sometimes do.

Out here on the social Web, most of us are extremely fortunate to have the right to speak freely. It’s not a right we should ever take for granted.

I for one am going to make more effort to respect my right to intellectual freedom. I’m going to make some changes in the way I do things, and the conversations I choose to be part of.

Your thoughts?