Free Screech

It is refreshing (though slightly alarming) to see that my occasional  and much-beloved correspondent, the voluble Parakeet Ghost, is a free speech fundamentalist. 

I'm not. But this week my vocal and mental faculties are fully employed elsewhere. Therefore, I'm handing it over to the Ghost Who Talks, permitting him to eloquently squawk below (or perhaps more aptly for the occasion, to engage in free screech).

Confessions of a Fundamentalist

I am a free speech fundamentalist. Let me explain.

Free speech is often supported because it is seen to produce good results. It creates more informed citizens and voters. New and useful ideas emerge from the cacophony of voices. Problems attract the attention of decision makers more quickly. Amartya Sen famously argued that famines tend not to occur in democratic open societies because news of a crisis spreads fast.

The problem with a purely instrumental view of free speech is that it allows speech to be suppressed when it poses a real (or even imaginary) threat to social welfare. For example, provocative opinion on sensitive religious issues could potentially lead to friction between communities and cause riots. In such cases, freedom of expression must take a back seat to the public interest, it is argued.

This view has become the orthodoxy in India. Its genesis probably lies in the banning of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The “stop the riots first” mindset is deeply problematic and the seed sown by Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 is bearing some of its toxic fruit now. I haven’t yet read Joseph Anton. Debraj thinks Rushdie’s batting for free expression is ruined by his narcissism and self regard (he is not alone in thinking so). Maybe, but I think the principle here is worth defending if not the victim.

Despite a generally favourable speech climate, Europeans sometimes place social goals over freedom of expression, as reflected in the head scarf laws of France or the criminalization of Holocaust denial. In America, some landmark First Amendment cases defended speech that was disreputable or unpopular, like Larry Flynt’s pornographic parody or the anti-semitic rally in Skokie, Illinois (while we are at it, though, let us spare a thought for Bradley, er, Chelsea Manning).

Of course there are some limits on free speech everywhere. Libel laws and penalties for false advertising are oft cited examples. But the exceptions should be narrow, based on concrete criteria and the bar ought to be set very high. So says the Supreme Court of the United States.

I must confess I find the American approach more appealing. Freedom of expression should be upheld regardless of immediate consequence. Social discord should not be an admissible argument for suppressing speech. Freedom of speech should be seen as an end rather than a means. I will give you three arguments to support this position.

My first argument is based on misuse. After the Bush administration’s sordid human rights violations came to light, some apologists grew rather fond of an ethical hypothetical: the ticking time bomb scenario. Wouldn’t you be willing to torture a terrorist to find out the location of a time bomb that is about to blow up the world? The answer is “yes, of course” but one should add: what does that have to do with anything? The question isn’t what is right in extreme (and extremely unlikely) scenarios but what kind of power the state can be trusted with. The speech issue is quite similar.

As a matter of public policy, if we are debating restrictions on free speech, we are talking about a systemic choice, not a particular application. We must judge it by the likely consequences that will arise when such powers are placed in the hands of political actors. What has happened in India in the last few decades is a clear illustration of how speech control invariably ends up as a tool serving the powerful. After all, they are the ones in control!

India’s most divisive politicians, folks who exploit people’s prejudice to reap a harvest of money and votes, still go about their own merry way. Repressive legislation like Section 66A of the IT Act has not helped one bit in restraining the true purveyors of hate. It is unleashed instead on those who are not in organized politics. It muzzles innocuous comments, artistic expression, dissent and criticism.

Earlier this year, Bombay (oops, Mumbai) was brought to a standstill by the death of Bal Thackeray, whose political career can be seen as a museum of local chauvinisms. The fickle shifting of his target groups (Tamils, Muslims, Biharis) is only matched by the brazen vehemence with which they were demonized. The same police who wouldn’t dare move against open exhortation to political violence arrested two college students who wondered aloud about the forced shutdowns that accompany powerful politicians’ deaths. One of them didn’t even say anything, just uprated a Facebook post!

In an even more surreal twist, West Bengal police arrested a college professor for emailing a political cartoon to a group of acquaintances. While the cartoon clearly mocked the political shenanigans of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, she described it – pushing common sense beyond its last breath – as a murder threat! Meanwhile, the culture of political violence in the state spirals out of control and Banerjee’s own party MLAs are heard issuing barely veiled threats at opponents in election rallies. Law enforcement pretends to be stone deaf.

In the last two decades, India’s illiberal speech laws have made us witness a series of unfortunate events. Artists, rationalists and feminists have been hounded into exile, critics of army atrocities in troubled states have been charged with sedition, the ruling party has gone after Google and Facebook, and con artists have bottled up any attempt at exposé. In the same time frame, we have seen the destruction of the Babri Masjid, politicians suspected of organizing riots attaining high office, anti-superstition activists being shot, and caste or communal calculus coming to dominate electoral politics. This medicine has only side effects, no healing properties.

My second argument is based on reverse causation. As we seal lips, cowering at the prospect of intolerance and violence, we sow the seeds of the very things we are afraid of. As we tie up and dumb down our discourse, we shed our capacity for nuance, complexity, analysis or irony. We encourage the prickly sensibilities that we are trying to assuage.

The climate of soft censorship that we have bred in India has led to the explosive growth of an outrage industry. No Bollywood blockbuster can be released today without some obscure and offended group throwing a hissy fit over something or the other. Every year the Jaipur literary festival descends into a farce over some throwaway comment, a book reading or maybe even a limerick or palindrome.

The latest episode involved Ashish Nandy, who made the trenchantly egalitarian observation that the privileged classes often define corruption to leave out nepotism and quid pro quo – unfair means in which they have a comparative advantage. As the networks endlessly recycled an out-of-context line, which appeared insulting to dalits and adivasis (but only out of context), Nandy grovelled before a local political boss but still ran afoul of the Prevention of Atrocities Act! From a people who occasionally risked coming to blows, we have become a nation capable of uttering only platitude and pablum in public.

My third argument is very simple. It doesn’t matter what the outcome is. Free speech is a beautiful thing, the same way the forest is more beautiful than the garden. Throughout history people have recited poetry and yelled obscenities, blown kisses and given the finger, sung sweet serenades and shouted stupid slogans, expounded scientific truths and muttered dark prophecies at street corners. This Tower of Babel is our heritage. This infuriating, discordant din needs no justification other than itself. I should really have skipped the elaborate logic of the preceding paragraphs and stuck to my fundamentalist position.

But then, why speak ten words if they let you speak a thousand? You may not always be so lucky.


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