Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Debating Free Speech

What are the limits to the Freedom of Speech and Expression?

Subsequent to my earlier column, a complaint was presented via a letter to the editor, that my column, which denounced the “We Shall Overcome” rally for allowing Manohar Parrikar to speak at the public meeting displayed to the world, my “pretentious belief in freedom of speech”. This complaint offered an alternate point of view “I (said that author of the complaint) deplore and condemn the viciously divisive and dangerous ideology of the Right (namely the Hindu fundamentalist groups), but to suppress anyone's right to express himself/herself as a citizen of Goa is doing exactly what the Right have done in similar circumstances when in power. We are not like that!”

To my mind, this argument is facile, but more importantly rests on certain principles of Liberalism, that are deeply flawed and allow for such facile and eventually dangerous assertions.

The principles of Liberalism presume that all citizens are equal. Indeed the letter to the editor says as much, we “cannot suppress anyone's right to express himself/herself as a citizen of Goa”. But this is where the Liberal vision betrays shortcomings. We may ideally like to presume that citizen’s are equal, but the fact is that they are not. There are some citizens who are, whether we like it or not, more powerful than others. This is one of the greatest problems of Liberalism. It fails to recognize the operations of various kinds of power that effectively render one citizen more equal than the other. Failing to recognize this difference in power, then allows us to make the facile argument, that preventing someone to speak at a public meeting is a suppression of the right to speech and expression. The person in question here is the leader of the Opposition! Are we seriously trying to suggest that the Leader of the Opposition, in this case the voluble and slick media-charmer Mr. Manohar Parrikar has a lack of space to express his opinion? A case of suppression of his right to speech would emerge only when the rally at Azad Maidan was in fact, his only way to get his ideas across. In such a case preventing him to speak would have definitely been a violation of this fundamental right. Clearly though this is not the case. On the contrary, in keeping with this noble sentiment of allowing citizens of Goa to speak, the floor could (and should) have been yielded to those who rarely, if ever, get an opportunity to speak. And there were people at Azad Maidan rally, who wished to speak, but were not given opportunity. So much for standing up for the Freedom of Speech.

What if Mr. Parrikar had not been Leader of the Opposition, but an average citizen, bereft of such power? Would we be justified in preventing him to speak at a public meeting like the “We Shall Overcome” rally at Azad Maidan? I would argue we would be based on two criteria. The first would be the extent of our right to expression, and the second would be context.

What is the limit of our right to expression? Can we allow for hate speech and what my critic acknowledges is Mr. Parrikar’s “viciously divisive and dangerous ideology” under the guise of Right to Speech and Expression? I don’t believe that we need to argue the obvious! Clearly hate speech and the deliberate inflaming of communal passions cannot be allowed the respectability that comes from a public platform that “We Shall Overcome” was meant to be.

But this barring of speech is not (and cannot be) a blanket ban on expression. Clearly there must be spaces where even a fascist must be allowed to speak. This is where the second criteria of context comes in. A public meeting like ‘We Shall Overcome’ is of a form which does not allow debate. One cannot respond to the hate speech, condemn it and point out its flaws. This for two reasons. First, such a meeting is one where speakers randomly come up and speak, and there is no systematic exploration of an idea or of an agenda. The hate speech then, can go uncontested and unchallenged. The second reason is the form of the gathering itself. Such rallies (and not just ‘We Shall Overcome’) gather potential mobs. This audience will gather up the stimuli and by nature of the form of the meeting, is actively prevented from reasoning out the stimuli presented to it. Clearly then, if one knows a person to be a fascist, and is aware of her/his divisive intentions, one can prevent him/her from speaking at such a public rally.

The audience at a debating club or a discussion group is an entirely different order. People gather here for the specific reason of encountering ideas, and then evaluating them to the core. To prevent an average citizen who expounds “viciously divisive and dangerous ideology” from speaking at such an audience, would I agree, be a violation of the right to free speech. The problem with fascists however, is that they very rarely enter into such groups and address such audiences. They prefer mass rallies, where they can insert hate into minds, where they can hijack agendas and meetings. Or they prefer private discussions where they are not really open to debate, but are merely bludgeoning you with their ideas.

In conclusion then, one has the right to free speech, when one is following the rules of the game, where respect for the other is present. Talking to a mute(d) audience is not the space for the right to hate speech. In such events, one has the right to block hate speech in contexts where the recipient of the argument is not allowed to pause, reflect and talk back. This is why context is so important when we discuss and debate rights. To not give the audience this right is in fact to participate in an assault on their rights (to speech, expression and multiple others).

(Published in the Gomantak Times 29 October 2008)

[For those who follow the blog, you would know that the nameless critic in this column is Dr.Oscar Rebello. I chose to leave him nameless in the column because i believe that Oscar is representative of a larger way of thinking. The issue therefore is not necessarily with Oscar, with who I may continue to have differences, but with a larger issue about the meaning of democracy and the extent of rights.]

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