On putting an end to competitive intolerance

It is impractical for India to protect everyone from being offended. So it shouldn’t

If the phenomenon of competitive intolerance is akin to an arms race, then what can we say about bringing it to an end? That’s a practical question that should interest policymakers. It is, of course, possible to make a perfectly reasonable case (like Amit Varma and Salil Tripathi) that free speech is a fundamental human right, is non-negotiable and India can never be said to be completely free until all constitutional and legal impediments to free speech are dismantled. However, since much of the justification for constitutional and legal curbs on the freedom of expression is due to arguments of ‘public interest and welfare’, it is important to examine whether those assumptions are valid.

The argument boils down to this: it is a good idea to seek a balance between freedom of expression and maintenance of law & order. But the fact is that the balance has always come at the cost of freedom of expression, especially in recent times. Writers usually suffer, while rioters often get away (see Amit Varma’s column). In other words, once the intolerant realised that there were positive returns to be had for their intolerance, the arms race accelerated. The argument of for balance was lost when the arms race started, for every escalation in the race is uniformly an assault on freedom of expression. India has travelled a long way from banning the Satanic Verses to the (possible) banning the forwarding of Sardarji jokes by SMS.

The ‘balance’ argument fails not merely at an intellectual-philosophical level, but on the ground. It works this way: Faced with a choice between expelling an offending writer or facing down a mob of rioters, it is likely that a rational district magistrate or police superintendent will choose the former. And it works this way because the magistrate or superintendent has a choice.

This week’s Economist has a report on Oxford Union’s decision to invite a White supremacist politician and a Nazi apologist for a debate. This, naturally, attracted a lot of opposition:

On balance, however, the Oxford Union members who had voted to stage the debate had a better case. Free speech, they argued, is like a muscle which needs to be exercised to remain useful; the extremes of its terrain must be staked out to stop it shrinking. That seems a better attitude than Austria’s, which by imprisoning Mr Irving boosted his notoriety (and his appeal to the Oxford Union). It is also preferable to that of the British government, which pursues the impossible goal of protecting the feelings of Muslims, gays and other groups who officially loathe each other. [The Economist]

Like in any arms race, there are two stable states in the game of competitive intolerance: first, when no player is intolerant; and second, when every player is intolerant. But the first option is not available to India. A lot of water has already flowed under the bridge. Unsurprisingly, as borne out by current events, we are rushing headlong towards the second.

It stands to reason, as The Economist argues, that attempting to protect everyone from being offended is futile. In fact it is becoming clear that violence will continue to the extent that the violent know there is space to get the government to do their bidding.

The upshot is that doing away with restraints to freedom of expression—and taking the American constitutional route to free speech—is not merely a matter of principle. It is a practical necessity. Going after the rioter is the only way to maintain law & order. Because India is a mindbogglingly diverse society. That district magistrate, police superintendent or any of their political masters should not have a choice.

4 Responses to On putting an end to competitive intolerance

  1. jujung 6th December 2007 at 16:39 #

    “It is impractical for India to protect everyone from being offended. So it shouldn’t”
    Neither is it practical for India, in its current position, to protect everyone from the offended. Which law supports the acts of mobs and rioters vandalizing and terrorizing citizens? Are we able to do anything about it?

    As long as the law enforcement agencies are unable to enforce the law, all this doesn’t matter. Judicial process is so slow that it’s not even an option. Reforms in police, justice delivery mechanisms are of primary importance for India now. Till then, such debates on freedom of expression and its limits will just be of academic interest only.

  2. Sriram 6th December 2007 at 20:39 #

    1. Why is it ‘W’hite supremacist?
    2. How can there be a balance when everyone is intolerant? In arms race, one can understand because the fact that the enemy possesses equal capabilities acts as a deterrent, but how in this case?

    And I think the entire argument can be condensed to “good censors are hard to find”, if I may borrow it from you.

  3. Nitin 6th December 2007 at 21:01 #

    Jujung,

    Good point. The argument is one of ensuring speedy justice. But it is also a fact that writers & artists and owners of telephone companies can become offenders under the law; and since justice must be blind, these people too would be punished. That’s why we need to get rid of provisions of the IPC that are really a relic of a colonial power maintaining order by repressing freedoms, for they should have gone by 26 Jan 1950.

    Sriram,
    1. Why ‘W’hite? Now that you mention it, I really don’t know. Perhaps it should be lowercase.
    2. There’s no balance when everyone is intolerant—there’s equilibrium, or a stable state in the arms race. The word ‘balance’ in this post exclusively refers to the balance between free speech and need to curb it in order to maintain order.

    Yes, thanks for reminding me: the good censors are hard to find argument shows the futility of trying to please everyone. So we could say that (a) good censors are hard to find (b) and even if we do find them, they can’t conceivably succeed in their mandate.

  4. Chandra 7th December 2007 at 06:59 #

    Sriram, because not all whites are white supremacists and because the White supremacists belong in a separate sub-group.

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