Friday, 28 December 2012

Some thoughts on freedom of speech and opinion

Last night, I was disappointed to see a senior journalist who is an old friend of my family railing on social media against the backlash towards sexist remarks offered up by various politicians and other individuals in the long, messy aftermath of the Delhi gang rape.

His updates bothered me deeply because they are a great example of why the terms in which middle-of-the-road liberals frame issues of free speech are simply not good enough.

He spent a great deal of time fulminating against the press and various activists for their attacks against influential people making flippant and incoherent remarks that betray a deep misogyny. The brunt of his argument is a common one: people with hateful opinions have the right to hold and express these opinions. It is only when they commit acts of violence that it becomes a public affair and one in which the law can intervene. Apparently, except in such a case, we all have to put up and shut up.

This is seemingly a realist, even-handed view but I think it falls apart as a vision for a just society.

First there's the free speech red herring. If bigots, sexists and cranks have the right to express themselves, their opposites have a similar freedom to respond. Free speech is either free dialogue or a license to let anyone express any nonsense that comes to their minds without being called out on their bullshit. If free speech is not a two-edged sword it becomes a club with which to beat down discussion. If you want to grant people the right to hate speech, then you have to grant others the right to respond to this hate speech with their own expressions of anger.

All speech is not equal. An atmosphere in which prominent leaders use victim-blaming rhetoric and even the police bandy about terms like 'date rape' and 'love rape' in a manner that suggests these are somehow mitigated forms of sexual assault, and do not have the wrongness of these remarks pointed out fully and freely is one in which woman-haters and potential rapists can easily feel potentially validated. Some opinions are simply not conducive to the kind of just, equitable society one assumes we all want to live in, and at the very least opposition to them has to be allowed as much freedom.

But I think opinions which militate against the rights and safety of people on the basis of their gender, religion or caste are not purely a private affair. People act on their opinions, overtly or covertly. My journalist friend, when asked by me, admitted that the majority of people in this country hold deep gender, community and class prejudices but believes that this is okay because the majority do not act on it.

Don't they?

Perhaps the only reason he and I have not had personal experience of the deep iniquities of Indian society is because we're both educated, middle-class, relatively fair-skinned upper-caste Hindu men. Women, religious minorities and 'lower' castes are discriminated against in deeply effective, systemic ways on a daily basis and the end result is a society which is built on staggering amounts of injustice. And yet we're expected to agree that people have the right to their opinions and only violent acts of repression come under the ambit of the law or of public debate.

This, in a word, is bullshit. 

Incidents like the rape of a minor, the killing of a Dalit man for wooing a 'high' caste woman or the killing of a Christian missionary are only the tip of the iceberg. In a way, they are the least efficient ways in which prejudice expresses itself because they so easily condemned in isolation from their more insidious and pervasive forms. We need to have a public discourse in which the roots of social injustice - the unjust 'opinions' of a vast number of people - are shown for what they are and argued against. Maybe if people who express sexist or bigoted remarks in public are met with a strong response often enough people will start seeing that these kinds of attitudes are not alright, are not simply one among a variety of stances they can take as long as they are not overtly, physically attacking or abusing anyone.

Finally, I think a problem with a lot of liberal viewpoints is that they try to sidestep deeper issues of right and wrong, limiting them merely to the enforcement of the law. Laws can only reflect our vision of the kind of society we want to live in. Unless there is free public debate on what that society can and cannot include, we will never introspect on the deeper roots of social injustice and try and find ways to fight against them as individuals and as a whole.

Freedom of speech is not an absolute good; it has to serve as the basis for real discussion or it is just the freedom to babble. And if a few biased, bigoted chauvinists are hurt in the process, you'll excuse me for not shedding a tear.

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