For so many weeks I had been thinking of writing on a number of issues, but my laziness (primarily) and preoccupation with writing Faking News articles stopped me from writing another article since I wrote my first one almost five months back! Not that someone out there missed my writings and thoughts desperately, but if I call it a ‘blog’ I should treat it as one.
I thought of writing this article after I was approached by a national news channel to participate in a chat show on “freedom of speech”, where I was supposed to represent a party whose freedom of speech (the fake news reports) had the potential of “hurting sentiments” of others. Unfortunately the shooting for the show was to happen in Mumbai and I was not in a position to travel out of Delhi at that time and hence I missed the debate, but it surely made me think aloud over the issue.
The trigger of the debate (chat show) was Pakistan banning facebook, primarily due to a page titled “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day”, which they thought was offensive to Muslims and should have been deleted by facebook administrators. Even I had received a couple of nasty mails/tweets/comments after I made a joke on Pakistan’s knee-jerk reaction of banning facebook, and I knew that the issue of freedom of speech and expression was pretty relevant to me.
Recently, the issue of freedom of speech was again in center after an article published in TIME magazine was deemed offensive by many Indians, following which the magazine and the author appended their responses at the end of the article, both expressing ‘regret’ at having hurt people’s sentiments.
That has led some people to ask if TIME or any other western media outlet would have done the same (express regret) if the aggrieved parties were Muslims?
First let’s not confuse the situation and draw wrong parallels. TIME’s article was deemed to be offensive to the Indians and not to the Hindus as such and many non-Hindu Indians and NRIs had expressed their outrage over it.
It was made a case of racism rather than of religious bigotry, and more often than not, issues of racism are dealt with much more delicacy and sensibility in the western society than those of religious feelings.
Nonetheless, whether related to races or religions, can we really have an answer to “how far should freedom of speech and expression go?” Should freedom of speech be curbed if it hurts sentiments? Or should there be a freedom to hurt sentiments as well?
Perhaps the obvious answer would be a “no”, but if we think about it, there would be almost no freedom of speech and expression left in that case.
When a film critic trashes a movie in the most acerbic language in a review, undoubtedly he or she is hurting the sentiments of many people directly and indirectly involved with the production of the film. Why should a critic have the freedom to hurt the sentiments of these people?
If Hrithik Roshan approaches the courts to get all the negative and hateful reviews of Kites removed because they hurt his sentiments as well as those of millions of others who are his die-hard fans, won’t we find his assertion ridiculous?
Yet, let’s ask ourselves, why don’t we want to respect the sentiments of Hrithik and millions of his fans? If we don’t like Kites, can’t we just shut up and go home?
But we speak up and say loudly why we didn’t like a movie. Maybe because there is no “absolute truth” about how good or bad a movie can be, for the same movie could be loved and hated by different people. It is a matter of choice and opinion and differences are bound to exist.
In case of film reviews, we have agreed on an unwritten rule that these differences should be respected even if it hurts the sentiments of some people (and I’m damn sure it hurts the sentiments of Roshans when they read those reviews of Kites). So Bollywood gives the freedom to hurt the sentiments, two cheers to that!
Somehow when it comes to religious sentiments, we fail to follow this unwritten rule, maybe because many of us see and claim to experience the “absolute truth” in our respective religions?
As a skeptic, who is not convinced about “absolute truth” of any religion, why should I have not the freedom to hurt the sentiments of followers of any religion?
If I don’t like any religious practice or belief, why should I not speak up against it just like a movie critic or any of us speak up as soon as we don’t like a movie?
Although the TIME magazine article was supposed to be comic and satirical, for a moment let’s assume the author sincerely didn’t like some of the community traits of the immigrant Indians, why should he not have the freedom to speak up and hurt the sentiments of Indians? After all there is no “absolute truth” about what constitutes a good or bad community trait.
Clearly it’s not just about “hurting the sentiments”, we have to go beyond it and find out when there could be genuine reasons to question or curb a freedom of speech or expression that hurts sentiments. I can find three reasons:
- It uses outright obscene or hateful language or modes of expression
- It furthers fabrications and stereotypes to defame a group or individual
- It encourages thoughts or actions that are anti-social or anti-democratic
(with reference to the point number one above, what constitutes obscenity or vulgarity is again debatable and a matter choice and opinion, but I’d leave that out of the scope of this article)
Clearly Hrithik Roshan can’t claim the negative film reviews to be falling under any of the above three categories, and hence critics have all the rights to hurt his sentiments while exercising their freedom of speech. But Indians accused the TIME article of having shades of all of these.
In fact, most of the countries have legal recourses to address grievances arising out any action that follows in any of the above three categories. Therefore, instead of getting outraged and go rampaging in the streets, it’s better to find a solution within the legal framework of that country. I guess in case of the TIME article, outraged Indians did neither.
In India, we have an added reason to curb freedom of speech – It threatens to disrupt public life and order – almost inviting people to go rampaging in the streets and hence bolster one’s legal case?
So, if tomorrow Hrithik can somehow prove that negative reviews of his films can disrupt public order, say his fans could start burning buses, he might get the negative reviews removed? I leave that upon legal eagles to comment if that clause in the Indian law against freedom of speech makes any sense.
Now let’s come back to drawing images of Prophet Muhammad or any other act of freedom of speech that hurts religious sentiments, do they fall into any of the above three categories?
Say, if I draw an image of Prophet Muhammad, which is a favorable depiction showing him as a compassionate human being, how can it fall into any of the above category? Maybe drawing images of prophet is an anti-social act in an Islamic society, but how can it be so in a secular society? The only argument against such an act could be that it ‘hurts the sentiments’. Should we then discard such arguments and continue to draw images?
That’s the most tricky aspect of religious sentiments that it only offers the logic of ‘sentiments being hurt’ in defense and demands respect for itself.
Even in case of individuals, we can find numerous instances where personal sentiments can be hurt with an action or speech that doesn’t fall into any of the three categories listed above. For example, calling a person with amputated legs as ‘lame’ might not fall into any of the three categories, and might even be the “absolute truth”, but most of us would not like to exercise this freedom of speech and hurt somebody’s sentiments.
Should we show the same kind of restraint in case of religious sentiments?
Desirable, but not feasible.
Not feasible, because many times it becomes necessary to question religious beliefs to uphold modern democratic and scientific values.
Someone like Richard Dawkins argues that religions were institutions proposing the ‘hypothesis’ of a supernatural creator God in the same way as any scientist would propose a scientific hypothesis for an observed phenomenon. In his book “The God Delusion”, Dawkins argues that like any other hypothesis, the God hypothesis should also be open for evaluation and even falsification.
So we would need to make that distinction when evaluating an act, which may not fall into the aforementioned three categories, but yet ends up hurting religious sentiments.
In fact one can distinguish such acts of hurting religious sentiments into further three categories (inspired from from an article that Noam Chomsky wrote, where he distinguishes three categories of murder):
- Hurting sentiments on purpose with the sole intent to ‘hurt’ them
- Hurting sentiments inadvertently or accidentally
- Hurting sentiments with foreknowledge but without specific intent
Most of the images or cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that have been drawn recently fall into the first category, which I believe can’t be justified in the name of freedom of speech and expression, even if they (the images) might not have explicitly fallen into any of the three categories mentioned earlier (obscene, defamatory, or anti-democratic).
The TIME article, I believe, fell into the second category. Indians protested and the author as well as the publisher agreed that their original intentions were not to hurt the sentiments. Chapter closed, I hope.
But the third category is where I believe ‘hurting sentiments’ have to be allowed or condoned.
I was not a great fan of the campaign, but the original idea of “Everybody Draw Muhammad Day”, where it was requested not to draw obscene and abusive images of the prophet, but yet draw the images to drive home the point that threats of violence can’t curb the freedom of speech, fell in the third category, and that’s why I chose to make jokes on Pakistan banning facebook.
The organizer(s), who later dumped the campaign, surely knew that it would offend many Muslims, but they didn’t start the page just to offend them.
One can claim that the organizer(s) could have chosen another mean to drive home their point; but we can claim so in almost all other such cases that fall into this category, and what about those occasions when religious beliefs are conflicting with the modern democratic values? The only mean then left is to hurt the beliefs, sorry. Perhaps it also depends on how strongly you believe in “the ends justify the means”.
I don’t necessarily believe strongly in the above saying, also known as “consequentialism”, but I do analyze my thoughts and actions through the two sets of three categories mentioned above if someone accuses me of hurting their sentiments.