Making a case for Absolute Freedom Of Speech

Call me names. Abuse me. Abuse my mother and other family members if you are in the mood. Use the choicest of expletives in your repertoire. If you run out of them, ask me for a few. I may look up enough from my indifference to lend you a few that you might not have used or even heard of. But don’t expect me to get hurt or offended.

I had an epiphany early on in my life when I was 10 or 11 years old in a small town called Amlai in central Madhya Pradesh. I had a tiff with some kids in the industrial township that I lived in. I might have been rude or called someone names, although for the life of me I don’t remember the genesis of that tiff. What I recollect well is what happened afterwards. When I went out to play the next day, I was ambushed by a few boys including the aggrieved party. The lead bully was a few year older and manhandled me liberally. I was scared. And then the lead bully started calling me names, abusing me and the members of my family as well. I started howling. I was hurt. Offended. The more I cried, the more I was abused verbally. Expletives were hurled left, right and centre on me. And suddenly I had this revelation, that I was in their control as long as I was reacting to them. No matter what names they were calling me or my family, it hurt me only because I was letting it hurt me. Their calling me names didn’t change who I was or who my family members. It didn’t bring disrepute to them. It hurt my ego only if my ego was fragile enough for someone calling me silly names. And it was then I let it go. I stopped crying. I stopped reacting and pleading with them. And when they saw that I was no longer reacting they didn’t get the same sadistic pleasure as earlier and then gave up.

That realization held me good stead throughout my childhood despite the fact that I studied in 9 different schools, in different parts of India as well as in Nigeria for 2 years. Not only did I not react to abuses but also jibes or insults of varied kinds. Not reacting actually boosted my self-esteem rather than lowering it, because I realized that I was incharge of myself, my emotions and my well being and not some poor bully who has his own demons to fight. It also helped me make friends. Incidentally, I was back to being friends with those bully boys and we went back to playing cricket and other games regularly.

Many readers, especially boys, would have faced similar situations. We all know that friendly banter happens in school and college as does usage of abusive language of a range. The range may vary from age group to gender, from the culture of the town to that of the institution, but it does happen. Even though there are the types (of people) who take serious offence when someone who’s not a friend insults you, even that becomes lesser of an issue as we grow up. In any case, between friends insults and abuses are mostly tolerated and laughed at.

And having being either at the receiving or the giving end, we have lived through it and in most cases unscathed. Much of this also happens at workplaces, although again the acceptability depends on the sector and the organization’s culture. Let me note that I don’t advocate using abusive language at work (and or at other places for that matter). I am just stating these facts to make a point about Freedom Of Speech (FOS).

The fact that most of us have lived through a phase where we have at least heard if not used offensive abusive language, makes a case for Absolute Freedom Of Speech (AFOS). Anyone abusing me or my mother doesn’t really hurt me. I want to extend that to anything that you might say about me. To anything anyone might say about me. This can be posited as a liberal viewpoint, a viewpoint that we need to understand thoroughly to make sense of this post.

What does it mean to be a liberal?

Not to be pedantic, but because the word liberal is used quite loosely and sometimes even pejoratively, it’s important to bring us all on the same page with what it really means. Being a polysemic word, Google’s dictionary feature (which has licensed Oxford Dictionaries for this feature) gives multiple meanings for the word liberal. The ones that I am interested have been reproduced below in the image below:

Synonyms for liberal include tolerant, unprejudiced, open-minded, unbiased, modern, progressive, enlightened, forward-looking, humanistic. Why would anyone not want to be a these things? More importantly, why would anyone want to be the antonym of liberal: narrow-minded, bigoted or reactionary. Some people may choose to be conservative but that’s primarily in a political sense which is not the primary focus of this post. With liberalism defined as the holding of liberal views, being liberal and liberalism is primarily an attitude of respecting and allowing many different types of beliefs or behaviour.

While I am quite pro political and economic liberalism as well, but those issues are far too tangled to address effectively in this post. For e.g. I also support a welfare state of a limited kind which is more difficult to reconcile with political and economic liberalism. This post will focus being liberal in context of freedom of speech and related matters.

Having said that, liberalism even in the context of freedom of speech is impossible to comment on without commenting on the underlying politics. An individual’s liberalism can’t be separated from political liberalism because politics, or in turn the governments that rule, stipulate the formal laws that decide how liberal can the society be under the rule of law (assuming that rule of law exists). Just as importantly, the political situation also dictates the informal rules by which a society runs.

The role of politics in liberalism and freedom of speech

The case of the 2017 movie, Padmaawat, is an example of the political interference in freedom of speech & expression. The movie was banned in 4 Indian states despite the Indian central censor board clearance is a case thanks to the politics of appeasing the vote-wise powerful group of Rajputs in the state of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Haryana led to the state governments banning the movie without the rights to do so. Indeed, later on the Supreme Court overturned the ban in these 4 states. Most such bans are driven in India by the demand of fringe groups and politicians who find it easier to kowtow to such groups, either due to a lack of fortitude on their part or else more simply the fact that this bring them publicity and the promise of a favorable voting blocs.

In India, where elections are often decided by small margins, even small voting blocs are influential enough to change the outcome of the election. So as a politician, it’s safer to support such bans rather than oppose them for that might not just lead to them losing support from a voting bloc, but also lead to uncontrollable law and order situations which can be even more harmful. The common man in general doesn’t really care about the issues and is far more interested in being entertained by the watching the movies – which they find a way to do so in any case; whether through pirated versions on mobile devices or else in the case of Padmaawat through the Prime video streaming service which saw the opportunity of grabbing the attention of tons of new customers in the 4 states in which the movie was banned. I can personally attest to the interest in the movie in Gujarat – my neighbours got together to watch this movie at our house the day the movie was released on Prime video.

Taking it to the other extreme, politicians make incendiary issues out of nothing to put them into the limelight with minimal effort, like the Maharashtra government proactively banned historian James Laine book, Shivaji – Hindu King in Islamic India. While other experts have claimed the book to be balanced, the purported problem that fringe groups in the state and therefore the government have are questions raised in the end about the accuracy of some of the popular narratives about Shivaji’s life. Instead of upholding freedom of speech, politicians quickly jumped on the bandwagon of suppression and filed a police complaint against the author because that’s far more valuable in vote-garnering.

By default, the political class doesn’t like FOS because it means that the media and even a common man can criticize them. Almost as a corollary, FOS has been a cornerstone of human progress over the centuries, as most progress has been made by struggles and revolutions against the ruling classes, whether kings, theocrats or more modern day politicians. Therefore, for the argument for AFOS to be sustainable, it’s paramount to understand the benefits of FOS.

The benefits of Freedom of Speech

Socially uplifting: FOS is socially uplifting because it allows minorities and persecuted to raise their voice against prejudice and injustice. The 1963 Martin Luther King ‘I have a dream’ speech was a turning point in the history of the struggle of the blacks for equal rights in the US. By raising their voice against the injustice being meted out of them, he and and many others like him were able to bring about massive social change. In India around the same time, the central government was planning to make Hindi the only official language of the country and making its teaching compulsory in schools across the country. Massive protests (although unfortunately some were violent) in south-Indian states led by Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh nixed that plan. That eventually led to both Hindi and English being declared as permanent official languages of the state, arguably the apt thing for a country which prides itself for its diversity.

Essential for governance systems to become a democracy: There’s a range of democratic systems across the world from Singapore’s more authoritarian format, to India’s more hodgepodge kind. But there’s no doubt that at least as yet humankind hasn’t found a better governance system, although some might argue that China’s benevolent dictatorship is giving a run for money to democratic systems. The point being that free speech has a big role in moving countries towards democratic systems from theocracies, dictatorships, autocracies, monarchies or even anarchies. Consider the Arab Spring in which peaceful protests and an active social media started a movement that metamorphosed into a chain reaction across the region, even though the process of change to truly democratic systems is nowhere near complete as yet.

Necessary for a democracy to perform: Britt Christensen says that a free press and civil society is necessary to hold the government accountable, to expose corruption, follow up on campaign promise and to report on policy performance. For e.g. Amartya Sen, the Nobel prize winner in Economics largely for his work on welfare economics asserted in 1999 book, Democracy as Freedom, that, “No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy’‘. With a free press being one of the 4 essential pillars of a functioning democracy, along with an active civil society, they put pressure on the government to take action to prevent tragedies like famines. So FOS plays a big role in ensuring the wellbeing for the marginalized.

Catalyst for innovation: FOS also plays a big role in catalyzing innovation and creativity as it allows free exchange of ideas. A cursory glance at the world will show at least an anecdotal correlation between the freedom in a country and the level of innovation. Innovations under oppressive regimes are oft a product of wartime efforts. Free thinking innovation have and continue to come primarily from those countries that have freedom of speech.

Impetus for personal growth: At a personal level, FOS is essential for an individual’s emotional and intellectual growth. It’s by listening to differing viewpoints, some even diametrically opposite, that we start questioning our own biases and thought processes.

Back in 2004, fresh out of college when I started my career as an entrepreneur, I was given a copy of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I couldn’t get beyond the first few pages claiming that I was “too evolved” to need self-help books. However, when a friend coaxed me a few years later in attending a workshop based on the same book, I realized the value of the book and self-development workshops and that there’s still way to go as far as my personal growth was concerned. While this example depicts is a relatively smaller personal growth due to FOS, the next example shows a far more radical change.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born into a Muslim family in Somalia in 1969. Her family was devout but not rigidly so. Growing up in Nairobi, she was influenced by the more rigid Wahabi Islamic system that’s supported by Saudi Arabia. About this period of her life, she said that she had been long impressed by the Quran, and she lived for the book and by the book. Ayaan also started wearing a hijab in school, although it was not a cultural practice in either Somalia or Kenya. She was also in favour of the the death-fatwa issued by Iran on the author Salman Rushdie for his book The Satanic Verses.

To escape an alleged arranged marriage, Ayaan fled to Netherlands at the age of 23. She was then exposed to a different worldview, a weltanschauung different from what she had encountered as yet. Sigmund Freud’s works introduced her to an alternative moral system that was not influenced by religion. Impressed by how well the Dutch society functioned, she did a Masters in Political Science and worked in various roles for the next few years. In 2001, when she heard Osama Bin Laden using quotes from Quran to justify the 9/11 attack, she started becoming disenchanted with Islam. Influenced by Dutch philosopher’s book on atheism, she renounced Islam and declared herself an atheist in 2002. Despite facing death threats and much opposition to the extent that she had to leave Netherlands to seek asylum in the US, she continue to stand for her beliefs. She’s well known today internationally as a critic of Islam, and an advocate of rights advocate for the rights and self-determination of Muslim women, actively opposing forced marriage, honor violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation.

The radical personal transformation couldn’t have happened in a society that discourages freedom of speech, just the same way that a poor kid brainwashed by fundamentalist doctrine (of any religion) has difficulty being liberal because s/he hasn’t been exposed to those with differing viewpoints. The ability to express doubts about the world around them and to be heard and to be agreed and disagreed to can bring out fundamental changes even in a fundamentalist, which is why the world needs is not just FOS, but Absolute FOS!

 

What I mean by AFOS and countering the objections against AFOS

As a liberal, I believe that Absolute Freedom of Speech (AFOS) should be exactly what Absolute means – Absolute. Let anyone say anything that they wish to anyone, about anyone. No matter how nonsensical or phantasmagorical it might be, or how “hurtful” or offensive or abusive it might be.

Why take such as extreme stand? Most liberals would agree that freedom of speech is necessary but that it’s good to put in some reasonable restrictions. The problem is when you start putting restrictions then those restrictions only become bigger and prohibitive, as has happened in India, whether in the case of religious sentiments, or else thin-skinned politicians filing cases against those who criticize them or so many fringe groups taking offense – the list of those taking offense against Freedom of Speech will not end.

The absolute frivolous kind

At engineering college, abusive language is standard fare. In fact, “gaali” fights are standard fare as well – the winner being the ones who loudest, most persistent and most creative. Did the gaalis really hurt anyone? Was it bad that tempers often got frayed? Not really – that’s part of a growing up experience I would say we should all undergo. Because after that it’s difficult to get offended.

Perhaps who haven’t been subjected to such creative stuff still can get offended, like my batchmates at IIMA, where the drama club staged an open play for our batch, and warned the audience before the play started that the play contains obscenities and sexual innuendos, and that those who don’t wish to be subjected to double meaning jokes should leave the auditoriums. Yet these batchmates of mine stayed on and got offended and later on posted a public notice demanding an apology from the drama club for subjecting them to obscenities. An online argument then ensued where my point was that you were forewarned and you could have walked out. You chose not to. After making that choice, surely you can’t ask for apology even if the play was offensive. My personal opinion about the play wasn’t very different for those offended – I too thought that the play was in poor taste. But I see no reason to make that a reason to complain against someone else’s freedom of speech, especially when suitable warnings and choices were given.

It’s easy to get offended if you make that choice. Can’t we all develop a more tolerant attitude? What if we were to ask – so what’s the big deal? So what if the other person or group is juvenile, casteist, racist, anti-religion and so on? How does it make a difference to my life? Otherwise we will continue to be bugged by frivolous complaints in both the person and public domain like the example that follows.

A police complaint was filed against Priya Varrier, a young actress from Kerala who took the internet by storm with her wink. Some men in Hyderabad got offended by the song’s lyrics which they said hurt their religious sentiments despite the song being a popular folk song in Kerala for a few decades. The police promptly started an investigation and fatwas were promptly issued against her by some sects in a 3rd part of the country. Apart from the obvious fact that an actress can’t be held liable for song’s lyrics, the frivolity of the case was established when the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court dismissed the case summarily berated the complainant: “Somebody in a film sings a song and you have no other job but to file a case”. Unfortunately in India, other than the SC’s generally sensible liberal approach to FOS issues, those in charge of upholding the law don’t really understand the necessity of freedom of speech and willingly or otherwise buckle to even those with such frivolous kind of complaints.

While this may sound frivolous, and is by any account a frivolous case of being aggrieved by freedom of speech, such cases have immediate and larger repercussions. The immediate repercussions are pointless mental and emotional harassment for the people involved. The larger repercussions are that it encourages an environment is which the public at large is quick to take offense at silly stuff, and of course there are enough fringe and mainstream politicians willing to jump onto that bandwagon. The Padmawaat case is a great example of that, causing not just mental harassment and but also economic loss to the movie producers as well as cinema hall owners.

The defamation sort of cases – sometimes genuine, mostly not so

Do I really mean that anyone should be allowed to call anyone? What about defamation? India has defamation laws under IPC 499 & 500 and although they have sufficient safeguards but they are tilted towards misuse by government. Having said that, the defamation law is not meant to prosecute someone who’s speaking the truth, or is doing do in the public interest. So anyone who’s speaking the truth or reporting facts need not fear the law in an ideal state.

However, if someone makes allegations without proof or substantiation then s/he make face legal proceedings, which is what happened when Arvind Kejriwal made unsubstantiated allegations of corruption against Arun Jaitley during his tenure at DDCA. Arvind Kejriwal and others eventually apologized and settled the care outside of court. Of course in this case powerful politicians with the wherewithal to fight such cases were involved. But for our current purpose we can conclude the defamation law is a sufficient law to prosecute someone who makes slanderous untrue statements, in which case there’s no reason for another law to restrict AFOS. Politicians anyway call each other some creative names, such as thieves to cowards and worse, especially during campaigning but misuse the state machinery to clamp down on criticism against them.

Commenting on the conduct of public servants is not supposed to be prosecuted under defamation law or under Sec 66 of the IT act. Politicians misuse it frequently as was the case when cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested for depicting the Indian parliament as a sewage pit to which toilets from all over India get flushed to. In West Bengal, an academic was arrested for portraying the CM’s decision to remove the railway minister as a conspiracy. 2 college-going girls in Thane, Mumbai were arrested and harassed by goons when they posted on their facebook accounts, their disagreement with a day’s bandh being observed due to a famous politician’s death.

Indian civil society is fighting such misuse of law as well as for change in such laws. However, such cases ONLY strengthen the case for AFOS. It’s only when you have AFOS that the common man and the media is emboldened to raise their voice against injustice or even just state their opinion even if it’s contrary to the official position.

The curious case of the hurting of religious sentiments and other mythical sentiments

The mythical Pandora’s box of hurt religious sentiments opened gloriously in India when the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress government became the first country in the world to ban Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses in 1988 based on the complaints of blasphemy by a few Muslim politicians who hadn’t read the book. More recently in 2009, US-based academician and author Wendy Doniger’s book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, was withdrawn by Penguin India after opposition from some Hindu nationalist groups who objected to the content (without having read it of course).

I haven’t read either book. And while hurting my religious sentiments can’t happen in my case because I don’t have any religious sentiments, but if I was the religious kind and if I did read the books and found them inaccurate or offensive, there’s still no case for books to be banned. If anyone disagrees, you have a choice not to read it. You have choice to counter it by writing articles against it, putting up as awareness campaign against it’s inaccuracies or why it might be hurtful to some. But banning the books is anti-liberal.

Those making a hue and cry claim to be speaking for all hindus or muslims or whichever community or interest-group they belong to, and that’s never the case. There’s no way that every person of that community is against whatever is published (or said). And you have to wonder what motivates these protestors?

The politically power-hungry: Of course most such protestors, especially their leaders, are politically motivated. They want political power and raising ruckus about nonsensical issues is a great way to gerrymander votes without having to do any real developmental work or even having to make promises to do so.

The blind followers: A majority of the protestors are people who have no idea but are just joining the protest because that’s the neighbourhood dabbang is telling them to do. Their tribe mentality means that they just blindly following orders, whether it’s just protesting or rioting, bullying, damaging public or private property or even worse. Some of them are also in it for the paltry sums they are paid, in cash or in kind to do such protest work. To all such people I say – rather than protesting about something you have no idea about – go and do something else – do some social work if you really concerned about the nation. Go play a sport, watch another movie if you don’t like this one, or read another book if you don’t like this one. Find better and honourable ways of making money. Finally, protest if you really want to but do so peacefully.

The fragile egotists: Then there are those whose belief systems are challenged when someone challenges their religious beliefs – whether it’s an adverse comment on their religion or religious figures. As our identities, our egos are based on our beliefs, when someone questions our beliefs, such people take it personally as their egos are bruised horribly and their outrage even though misplace and unreasonable is real. They want their bruised egos to be massaged by ranting about others, showing them down, and if that doesn’t work taking matters into their own hands literally. To them I say that you are wrong. Standing up for your belief is not done by suppressing others into silence. It’s fighting words with words, not words with swords. Whose religion (or any other belief system) is so shaky that a few words or images or videos gets fundamentally shaken up? How strong is your faith if you can’t bear criticism? Grow up people!

Where do we draw the line?

“Your liberty to swing your fist ends just where my nose begins”

(attributed perhaps incorrectly to American jurist Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr)

Hurt sentiments of any kind can never be an excuse to hurt bodies. If words do cause someone genuine hurt, then use words to hurt others but not your hands, stones, sticks or worse. That’s the central tenet of AFOS. Some emotional and verbal abuse and nonsense must be tolerated if even not agreeable for the sake of the benefits that AFOS brings. Abusing, threatening or physical intimidation may massage bruised egos and perhaps also subdue the challengers temporarily, but history shows us ideas are hard to kill and only words can counter words.

What about speech that incites violence?

This is the one issue that I have struggled to reconcile with AFOS. The classic example is that of the fellow who shouts fire in crowded theatre causing panic and a stampede with the intention of causing harm. That’s probably a fair case not so much for restricting freedom of speech, but having consequences when your words can be proven to cause direct harm. However in reality, such cases are going to rare with most people being sane and/or fearful of natural and/or legal consequences. The trickier issue is that of a leader “inciting” his followers to take violent action against some others. At what stage do we establish guilt?

In the recent Sabrimala row, the Supreme Court of India has allowed women of all ages to enter the temple striking down the customs of the temple which didn’t allow women aged 10-50 years. In response there were a number of protests, which included women. In one such protest, a Malayalam actor Kollam Thulasi said “Women who dare to enter Sabarimala temple should be torn into two pieces. One half should be sent to Delhi. The other half should be thrown to Chief Minister’s Office”.

A police complaint has been lodged against the actor for his words for multiple reasons including the provocation of violence against women. However, the AFOS position that I am arguing for would require even such statements to be condoned by law. Immature, politically incorrect and misogynistic as the statement is, if someone else acts upon what this actor says the actor though morally liable shouldn’t be held legally liable. Similarly, provincial politicians are known to have offered money to kill someone who has offended them, as was the case when one such politician offered Rs. 10 Crores to anyone who beheads the lead actress and producer of the movie Padmaawat. Again this is politically motivated, but should AFOS mean that someone can get away with such nonsense? Maybe yes, maybe not. But I am going to err on the side of AFOS and say yes; in a mature democracy, reasonable people will isolate or even ostracize such people. Of course, if someone else act then that person is surely liable.

I would argue that it’s not your belief and what you say that should count but how you act. You may be liberal in thought but if you assault someone – that’s what counts. On the other hand you may be a conservative – for e.g. you may be a devotee that doesn’t want Sabrimala to change its rules for women. But the real question is whether you will attack someone who tries to enter the temple to protect your viewpoint? Does your belief, however strong, give you that right? No.

My conclusion is to uphold AFOS unless it can be proven beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law that someone’s speech led to bodily harm. Therefore, there’s no need to put any upfront restrictions on AFOS.

What hurts instructs; laugh everything else off

If I criticize you, lampoon you through a cartoon or a spoof, why not first ask – “So what’s the big deal?” So you are making fun of me. Big deal. How does that make me a lesser person? What if all our politicians and celebrities laughed it off when they are made fun of. Humour is a great way to give feedback someone without it being very hurtful. If the criticism is valid, then there’s no case of feeling offended. If the criticism is not valid, then why get hurt? Put out a rebuttal if you feel strongly about it, correct the facts, relevant evidence and your own opinions.

Of course, if you are accusing me or blaming me, you could be right, in which case I should be willing to listen to and understand you, even if you could change the way you put it across. On the other hand, if it turns out that you were wrong, then it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s not black or white. In any case, why take it personally? If you listen with an open-mind there might be some constructive feedback that might help you improve as a person. If there isn’t then no harm done. You should then probably give constructive feedback to the other party on how they put across their point of view.

Learn to laugh at yourself. Those who don’t like to be criticised are fragile. And those who misuse power are only a few steps short of dictators or kings who are so drunk with power that they gleefully put to death their critics. Of course, in a democracy like India, it isn’t possible to put people to death that easily, but it’s easy enough to misuse state power to put critics behind bars or political power to threaten and put in some beating into it.

The AIB roast controversy is a great example of hypocrisy and unnecessary usage of power. Leaders accept that the usage of expletives and making fun, even crass fun at others expense is something they do, as we do as a society, and yet when something like that happens in front of a paid audience who’s enjoying the show, what sense does it make sense for someone else altogether to take offense in the name of culture or whatever? Take a chill pill yaar!

Why AFOS is worth fighting for despite all these challenges

In a world and a country that’s unfortunately getting more polarized and less tolerant rather than the other way around, it might seem easier and safer to just put a lot more restrictions on FOS and make safety and “peace” a priority instead. Why take needless panga?

Other than the benefits already described, there’s a much bigger reason to fight for AFOS. It’s so that we don’t turn into a country so intolerant that people get killed for their viewpoints and beliefs. One of India’s most celebrated artists, M F Hussain was forced to spend the last 5 years of his life outside India due to death threats issued by those who got offended by his artwork. I wish that those who were so worried about the defiling of Mother India, would spend their time and energy in making India safer for women by awareness campaigns and other means. MF Hussain died of old age.

Across the border, the governor of Pakistan’s state of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer was shot dead by his own bodyguard because of his liberal views, especially his opposition to the blasphemy laws under which a Christian lady Asia Bibi was convicted for a petty quarrel in 2011, involving only words and some religion with her neighbours. Although as of 2018, Asia Bibi has been relieved by the Supreme Court, but faces constant struggle even today to even live.

India thankfully doesn’t have such a draconian blasphemy law constitutionally. But it’s not for the lack of trying on behalf of the politicians. In August 2018, the Indian state of Punjab has amended the Indian Penal Code (IPC) to make sacrilege of all religious texts punishable with life imprisonment, with sacrilege being open-ended. By any perspective, such a law has no place in a liberal democracy because it puts us on the path from turning back becomes more and more difficult.

If what’s happening in Pakistan is scary and crazy, then consider the killing of 3 Indian rationalist writers, MM Kalburgi in Karnataka, and Govind Pansare and Narendra Dabholkar in Maharashtra. Why? Because these people were fighting superstitions and other wrongful religious and cultural practices. A few journalist have also been silenced by their opponents for speaking out against Hindu nationalism, or the state’s authoritativeness in Maoist areas, the most prominent of which was the daylight murder of prominent journalist Gauri Lankesh, a strident critic of Hindu extremism. Commenting on the rise of religious fundamentalism in India, the Pakistani poet, Fahmida Riaz’s satirical poem, “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikle…” warns India of dire consequences if it continues on the path of fundamentalism and suppression of Freedom of Speech that has made Pakistan as intolerant and explosive as it is today.

Politicians feel that they will gain and they might in the short-term but in the long-term it spells nothing but trouble. Intolerant societies will fail sooner or later and before they fail a lot of innocents will be harassed and tortured. Economic growth will plummet. A liberal has to demand liberalism from the government of the day.

Bringing back the age of reason from today’s age of offense

Bharath Balaji, a stand-up comedian, in a satirical but humorous youtube video (in which he also makes fun himself) says that we seem to be entering the age of offense. We need to reverse that. We can learn to laugh at ourselves. We can learn to be reasonable. To think critically.

The argument that an uneducated country like our can’t afford AFOS because people get swayed so easily is only as true as it is of America today, a hugely literate and advanced country and yet is turning illiberal day by day in the “Trumpian era”. So the argument that AFOS is not possible is country where there are many illiterates doesn’t hold water. What needs to be done is help everyone think better, whether literate or not. Public awareness campaigns against the spread of false news is necessary. Our first thoughts are often prejudice, based on hearsay, reactive. But some questions asked can change our perspective:

  • So what’s the big deal?
  • Is this really true? Should we trust everything that’s posted on social media or said by our leader?
  • That’s their opinion. Why should we care? We are strong.
  • Their words hurt. Maybe we need to learn to think differently about this issue?
  • Did they say that about us (or something beloved)? Well, so what? Don’t we also do this at times?
  • If someone asks you to believe or do something foolish, should we do it blindly?

Liberalism matters. Freedom of speech matters. Freedom of speech must be absolute for our society for it to progress and significantly, not to regress. And the liberals amongst us must stand up and make themselves heard!

Featured Image taken from IndianExpress.com (under fair use)

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