Jason S. Slakter, MD
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right that most of us are lucky enough to enjoy and that we all too frequently take for granted. Recent events in the Middle East have focused our attention on the fact that there are still many people who live in oppressive societies that not only limit such expression, but actively punish those that do attempt to speak freely, voicing criticism or opposition to the established leadership. Many of the citizens of these countries have taken it upon themselves literally to risk their lives to bring about the change needed to expand such freedoms of thought and expression to their own countries.
As with most things in life, opportunities and rewards come with a price and responsibility. If we as individuals wish to have the ability to speak our minds, we must also be willing to allow those with opposite points of view to speak theirs as well. On a societal level, this would include an open and respectful dialogue on such sensitive issues as religion, politics, economics and social justice. On a more professional level, it is the maintenance of an active discourse at scientific meetings, where individual physicians are free to express differing viewpoints and openly question established norms.
An additional and often ignored responsibility is our obligation not to inflict harm on others through our words and actions. We have all witnessed the tragic impact of intentional abuse of our freedom of expression through the posting of certain videos and toxic statements on social-media Web sites. Such malicious misuse of a fundamental right has resulted not only in long-term emotional distress, but to the suicides of individuals who were victims of such “cyber-bullying.” Just last month, we saw individuals who, through ignorance or true lack of caring, chose to express hurtful and disrespectful comments regarding the terrible events in Japan. With the devastation and ongoing suffering there, it is inconceivable that anyone would fail to exercise a reasonable degree of restraint in remarks that might add further burden to those already affected by this terrible situation.
As Editor-in-Chief of Retinal Physician, I have a unique opportunity to express my own thoughts and opinions in this Upfront column. I have tried to make them thought-provoking, sometimes humorous, and imparting of some small message, while maintaining a sensitivity to the readership. In this case, I hope I have stirred at least a bit of reflection on the value of freedom of expression, the valiant fight that goes on every day to preserve this right, and the ultimate responsibility that we all bear to ourselves and to others in our words and actions.