Friday, February 24, 2006

Hate Mail or Unpopular Opinion

A few danish Cartoons have generated a grave controversy across the world strengthening the divide between Muslims & Non-Muslims. There has been violent backlashes resulting into ceased trades with "culprit" nation, or attacking their embassies in various countries so on and so forth. The Denmark government took a stand that the paper is well within its rights of freedom of expression guaranteed by the nation. Jyllands-Posten however apologised for the publishing of cartoons. A few newspapers in Norway and France also published the cartoons in question. In nutshell the issue has sparked the debate on the gray areas surrounding freedom of experssion, religious sentiment and need for sensitivity in communicating differences of opinions. Some interesting perspectives

Rajeev Dhavan in
Times of India (Feb 16th 2006, Mumbi City Edition) writes
“There is a difference between ‘unpopular speech’ and ‘hate speech’. Only the former must be protected. Hate speech consists of deliberate and intentional attempt to insult and wound sensitivities of a group and community with intent of inciting strong reaction or knowing that disorder may foreseeably follow. Many legal systems treat racist, communal and sexist speech as impermissible hate speech. India is no exception.”

Sounds right isn’t it? Sample this

Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar writes (
The Sunday Times, 12th Feb 2006) in a delightfully candid manner
“I congratulate the Danish government for standing firm, insisting that its media have freedom, and refusing to apologise. Somebody has to stand up for basic freedom. The protesters reject the sanctity of free speech. Amazingly, traditional guardians of civil liberties have remained muted or silent: they seem to think that a hard line will simply spark more violence. This is not just spineless, it is an insult to my religion of liberal atheism.”

In the larger debate the issue has taken the shape of a debate between protection of Right to freedom of expression and unacceptability of hate speech specially against a religion or community.

Writes Rajeev Dhawan
"Many legal systems treat racist, communal and sexist speech as impermissible hate speech. India is no exception. Communal hate speech is criminalised by the Indian Penal Code (Sections 153A and 294A) and liable to be banned (Section 95 of the Cr PC) and subject to customs bans. "


Isn't it amazing!! while I was aware that this is true in the indian context but I never thought that this can be a matter of debate or even a difference of opinion. And then Ravi Kiran Rao wrote this thought provoking post on his blog. He concludes "I’ve heard it said that the right to free speech cannot be absolute, that the government should have the power to make exceptions to this right on a case by case basis, on pragmatic grounds. But it seems to me that the right to free speech in the US works only because it is absolute. If we make an exception for one case, people cite it and ask for an exception for themselves too. If the government can restrict free speech by passing laws, politicians will get elected by promising their constituents that they will expand the restriction to cover their concerns too. Free speech survives only because it is an absolute right. "

Come to think of it thats a great point - if there are ifs & buts to the right to express one self freely then will it remain "free speech".

Now read what Rajeev Dhavan Says
"there is a vast difference between opposing bans and supporting contents of all and any free speech. Voltaire's famous aphorism defends the right to free speech but does not prevent civil society from denigrating its contents. We may defend the right to publish unpopular, even provocative, speech while condemning certain statements of free speech as disgusting. In doing so, we would simply be confronting free speech with free speech."

Specific to the cartoon controversy Rajeev's article comments
"In the cartoon controversy, it would not have been contradictory for the Danish prime minister to extol freedom of press but condemn the cartoons themselves. Jyllands-Posten was right in apologising for the cartoons. Their re-republication by other newspapers was necessarily provocative in the worst traditions of free press. Diplomatic protests and cessation of trade ties may fall within the scope of symbolic retaliatory free speech. But violent protests are beyond permissibility."

This line of argument tend to suggest that freedom of expression can't be a license to insult religious communities. Swaminathan disagrees quite bluntly
"The fact is that every religion is an insult to somebody. The Hindu scriptures and dharma shastras unquestionably insult lower castes, women, and foreigners (who are called mlechhas, on par with untouchables). The Bible is an insult to Jews, who from the start were appalled by Christ’s claim to be a Messiah. Mohammed’s claim to be a prophet is similarly insulting to Christians. Hindus are called heathen and kaffirs respectively by Christians and Muslims, and both are insulting terms. Can the answer be for people from all religions and castes to attack and maim one another? Liberal atheists like me hold freedom of expression to be sacred, and tolerance of opposing views to be a fundamental duty. Our religion says that we can and do insult one another all the time in various ways. You can and should object when you feel insulted, I certainly do so. But the duty of tolerance means you cannot use violence or revenge as a means of protests: you should find other ways."


Rajeev Dhawan has a fine line of distinction on the issue. He concludes
"While espousing the case for an individualist right of free speech, we are not entirely liberated from the responsibility of collective governance in a fair and just manner. This is not an invitation to extreme forms of censorship. But, it does mean that the collective conscience does not have to be silent. Censor minimally, but condemn forcefully. It is part of free speech to meet irresponsible free speech with responsible condemnation."


Another interesting point of view from SHIV VISVANATHAN is on the thinking of the "two sides" of this debate. He comments in the Times of India"The cartoon controversy reminds one of a schizmogeretic situation........ The debate has been deluged with editorials. We have essays on freedom of press, on profundity of faith, on why secular citizenship can’t yield to ethnic pressure. Analysis of this kind operates within fixed frames. Firstly, it is read consciously as a clash of religions particularly of Islam and Christianity. Secondly, it is seen as irrational faith confronting liberal secularism. ........There is an implication that Islam is Third World and ethnic and suffering from a touch of inferiority or defeat. Alternatively, the liberal West is projected as mature, superior and content within the rule of law. The opposition becomes one of identity politics Vs citizenship, law Vs vigilantism and reason Vs obscurantism."

It doesn’t take a Chomsky to realise that the western press can be hypocritical ...... But it takes wisdom to see that freedom and hypocrisy go together. The cartoons reflect Orientalism at its worst. But freedom of press is part of a large vision of democracy and the current situation will benefit neither side. If France, England and Germany want to survive as democracies, they must rework their liberalism to understand that they are not homogeneous societies but multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural societies which have to go beyond tolerance as disengagement to plurality as engagement. Islamic groups must also realise that freedom and faith will feed on each other and Europe might produce a new and creative variant of Islam like India and Indonesia did."


Some observations
There is a consensus (atleast among the intelligensia) that the violent reactions to the cartoons (allegedly from the muslims) is unacceptable in a civilian society

However - the world seems to be divided on the question of what constitutes free speech and how much of it should be allowed. Should it be absolute or moderate sensorship is actually needed? Should free speech be redefined at least in a context where sensibilities of larger masses is involved?

In this context can pornography (specially the explicit and some times psychic ones), hate speeches and writings and also targetted maligning campaigns be considered exercising of free speech. An example is the suicide by a student of IIM-Lucknow who died trying out a variety of method of hanging that he read about on a website. Could such incidences be handled better by a minimal censoring.

It is OK to talk of freedom to express as an absolute right in the world of journalism and that of bloggers, however the real world is different - however much we reject this theory. No right is actually absolute. One can talk of rights being absolute only in the world where people understand and live by their duties. In this sense itself ANY right cannot remain absolute. The day I decide not to care about my duties and just assert my rights as absolute I become a problem (for the society and for those who espouse this philosophy). That is what is wrong with freedom of expression as an absolute right.