Thursday, February 13, 2014

What's use of freedom of speech without freedom to offend?

Recently I read very disturbing news related with Penguin withdrawing a book on Hinduism (The Hindus: An Alternative History) written by American Indologist Wendy Doniger from India, this action was result of an out-of-court settlement with some Delhi-based complainants who blamed the book for insulting Hindu traditions and culture, they took this matter to court and I think to avoid all legal hassles and controversies Penguin decided to take this action. Actually banning any book, movie, play or even a person for some offensive remarks against some community, religion or God is not a new thing in India, it happened many times in past and sadly it's happening again, some books like Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses are still banned in India. In any free, progressive and truly tolerant society freedom of speech is very important, and as Salman Rushdie once said freedom of speech has no any meaning without right to offend, people who understand real meaning behind this statement will also find some sense in this wonderful article written on this subject Kenan Malik, from that article I want to quote one paragraph, 
"The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of “tolerance” or “respect,” we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice. The right to “subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is, in other words, the bedrock of an open, diverse, just society."

In the same article he also says that it's impossible to bring any major social change or reform without offending someone's sentiments and I always believed in this. Many people whom I talk do desire some social reforms but they don't want to start it from their own home just because they don't want to hurt or offend their loved ones. I am sure someone's sentiments must have got hurt when child marriage was opposed, when girl's right to get educated was advocated by Savitribai Phule, when widow marriage was performed, when sati tradition was banned, but all these things were necessary to bring desired and much needed social reforms, all those people who participated in this social change experienced fierce opposition from our society, they hurt many people's sentiments but fortunately their resistance survived and they could bring the desired reforms in reality. All these things happened many many years ago, but it seems even now our society's mindset in India has not yet changed, we are not yet tolerant towards any criticism towards our leaders, Gods, religion, community, traditions, country or even a political party. Any movie or book or article criticizing anything related with these subjects immediately gets banned or if not banned by government then it generates adverse reaction from some section of society which claims that their feelings are hurt. Authors or movie makers face problems and sometimes these protests are very violent, this is not a sign of tolerant or progressive society. The most important part is that this matter can be related with any religion or caste they all behave in same way, it seems this is the problem of entire society any particular religion or community can not be singled out for this, as a society India needs to widen it's tolerance level towards criticism. I don't say that it doesn't happen in other countries, there are more conservative and sectarian societies than India where there is absolutely no freedom of expression at all, but I am not comparing India with them and when we Indians claim to have very open minded and inclusive culture and history this type of behavior definitely contradicts this claim, rather it makes all these claims sound superficial and to some extend false.

I believe better common sense will prevail in all these matters and as a society we Indians will understand the true meaning of freedom of expression, this thing comes with certain amount of risk but with lot of benefits also and according to me benefits of it over weigh all the risks. In the name of tolerance or respect we can not curb freedom of expression, people will understand that with rights also comes the responsibility and for every book that offends someone they have total freedom to publish a rebuttal which disproves theory or logic presented in that offensive material, this is the real way to deal with such things, banning anything only makes it more popular, I was not even aware of Wendy Doniger's name and her work before reading this news, now I am going to read her book to see what it says about Hinduism and I am sure there are many who came to know about this book only because of this controversy, so I don't think even this attempt of banning these type of things serve any purpose. In the era of internet it's not possible from banning anything from getting distributed once it's available online, now this controversy will be biggest advertisement for this book. To all people who get offended by some book or movie, my simple advise is just don't read them or watch them, banning them or bullying people associated with those creations only displays timid conservative mindset. So let's learn to care and respect each others views, this is the only way to move forward.

Thanks for reading and please share your opinion about this topic.

[Copyright : Vinay Thakur. Please contact the author for re-posting or publishing]

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