Thursday, January 15, 2015

Free Speech Fundamentalism

Continuing the previous post on FoSE.  There is now a significant push back against all the support for Charlie Hebdo and the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ movement.  Mehdi Hasan in an essay in the New Statesman argued that Charlie Hebdo has not printed any cartoons about the Holocaust or 9/11, saying that the right to offend does not “automatically translate into a duty to offend”.  I don’t think they have of the Holocaust but they definitely have a controversial one of 9/11, which shows stock-trader shouting ‘Vendez!’ (‘Sell!’) as one of the hijacked planes is about to crash through his window on the World Trade Center, published the same week as the 9/11 attacks.  May be that was in poor taste, as most of their cartoons are, but I would still support their right to print it.  And for the record, I would support their right to do so if they published a cartoon on the Holocaust too, however tasteless I might think it is.  

The right to offend is not a duty to offend has been a theme in much of the criticism. There are a large number of essays and interviews making the same point but I’ll pick just another one.  Rakshanda Jalil makes more or less the same point as Hasan in an essay in Indian Express, arguing that satire must have an element of intelligence.  She points out that the magazine “has always derived a perverse pleasure in displaying a gleeful irreverence for Islam and its Prophet.”  I agree with both Hasan and Jalil about the offensive nature of the cartoons, but I still support the magazine because the principle of free speech cannot be a matter of what I or Hasan or Jalil find tasteful or tasteless. I am one with Jalil and Hasan about the impropriety of making some kinds of kinds of jokes or other forms of expression that might offend others but this is a matter of personal taste and behaviour which cannot be the principle of a liberal society that believes in FoSE.  That is why the principle of FoSE has to protect also the right to hateful speech, as long as it does not cross the line to direct incitement of violence.

The problem with the point of view that free speech shouldn'y offend is that in the absence of a clear principle, it is essentially left to mobs to decide what is and is not tolerable.  This is what we have in India, with the latest example being the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, who has been effectively silenced by mobs in Tamil Nadu because his writings were seen as offensive by the Kongu Vellalar community.  The argument that FoSE has to be bounded by sensitivity means that, in effect, that anything that causes offense to anyone will need to be banned.  In practice, in India, this means that whoever can generate a large enough crowd or cause enough destruction of public and private property to demonstrate that their feeling of having been offended wins.  If Murugan has been silenced but not the movie PK, it simply reflects the fact that not enough movie theatres showing PK were vandalised.  What this is is simply an invitation to let mobs decide the limits of FoSE. 

Finally, on the case of Priya Pillai and Greenpeace.  Pillai was offloaded from a flight to London a few days back for reasons that are still unclear but apparently because of her activism against certain projects in the Mahan region of Madhya Pradesh.  Now, I disagree with much of the policy approach of Greenpeace towards issues of development and especially nuclear power.  I strongly support not only nuclear power but nuclear weapons.  As an energy deficient country, I think India needs all sources of power, including nuclear but also renewable sources such as solar and wind.  For me, unlike for Greenpeace, this is not an either/or.  And as a Realist, I think nuclear weapons are going to be around a while and India cannot afford to not have them.  But to suggest that Greenpeace should not campaign against nuclear power or weapons is ridiculous and stopping Pillai from going to London for a workshop is absurd.  But it is only when we are FoSE fundamentalists, to use Hasan’s characterization, can we protest what happened to Pillai.  For, if FoSE can be curtailed arbitrarily for reasons of taste and sensitivity, why not whenever the State decides that is inconvenient?  This is the slippery slope point I made in the last post.  The only way to avoid this is to be a FoSE fundamentalist.  

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