The liberal nationalist position on free speech

The weapon of the weak

Sowmya Rajaram of Bangalore Mirror interviewed me for her feature article on Sunday. Here is the complete exchange:

1. What, according to you, is freedom of expression (FoE)?

The idea of free speech & expression is to say (write, draw, sing, compose musically etc) what one feels without being deterred by government, politicians, social consensus or popular sentiments. The only exception is the “harm principle” where there is incitement to violence.

Of course some free speech can be defamatory, and those defamed can seek legal recourse for the damage caused to them. But there cannot be any prior restraints on free speech.

2. There are a few matters to consider when talking about FoE– one of them being that it isn’t equal for everyone. Often FoE is different when you’re a disadvantaged minority, and an ideal for the privileged majority. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, for instance, the publications’s cartoons were often violent and deliberately provocative (even distasteful) in a country which did have a troubled relationship with its Muslim minority. So how does one negotiate that?

This is a specious argument — on the contrary, free speech is more meaningful for those who are in a minority, for their voices to be heard. It is more meaningful for those who are weaker, powerless, poor or disadvantaged. Only free speech allows the disadvantaged asymmetric power.

3. You have in the past said that censorship is tied up with issues of intolerance and competitive politics. That may be true, but isn’t censorship necessary in a large, diverse and often fractious state like ours? How does one balance the need for individual FoE with a collective responsibility to peace and freedom?

In ordinary circumstances, there is no case for censorship of any kind. Films could perhaps be classified so that children are protected from adult themes and audiences can know before-hand which films they might want to avoid. You only have to see our films to see how distorted censorship outcomes are: you have films with the most misogynistic themes, celebrating barbaric behaviour, all allowed without cuts. But kissing and nudity are censored!

The only point where censorship is justified is in emergencies — where there is a risk that information flows can impact national security, set off large-scale violence, rioting, stampedes etc.

Censorship to protect the sensitivities of adults is ridiculous, patronising and makes a mockery of our democracy where adults are considered sensible enough to vote, marry and produce children, but not sensible enough to watch a movie or read a book!

These questions turn up repeatedly because we have arrived at some kind of a consensus that something that is offensive ought to be banned. The contemporary roots of this arose with Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which the Rajiv Gandhi government banned. India was the first country to ban the book! That opened the floodgates for everyone to claim to be offended and get the offending movie or book banned. Since India has hundreds of communities, it is normal for each of them to want to claim the same ‘privilege’ as others.

Showing thin-skinnedness is also a useful political tactic, as it allows a group to demonstrate their political strength.

Individuals identify with one or more communities, and are understandably more vocal in claiming their own ‘privileges’ than in defending others’ rights. So people will engage in whataboutery and yesbuttery. We can’t blame the people, because they are responding to the incentives our public environment has created.

The way out is simply to adhere to the view that nobody’s sensitivities are worthy of protection. I think many of the films, lyrics and songs are in very poor taste, and hence I avoid them. People have the right to change the channel! If people don’t turn up to watch Honey Singh’s shows, I’m sure he’ll change his tunes (or lyrics). People who are offended by Doniger, Rushdie or Socrates don’t have to read them.

4. Many of the ‘hate speech’ laws are a legacy of colonial times when it was deemed necessary to have them to control an essentially “esxcitable”, diverese race. How are these relevant today?

Yes, hate speech laws in the West derive from their colonial excesses, racism, slavery, and of course, the great crimes during the Second World War. We did not have these in India. Our problem is communal, caste and ethnic conflict which is not quite the same thing.

We need not control hate speech. But there is a case to punish incitement to violence based on hatred (or for that matter, any other reason).

5. How much merit is there to the movement for a complete libertarian state where speech is truly free? Is it even possible?

There cannot be a complete libertarian state, as that is an oxymoron. A state involves a social contract where some liberties are traded away for the privilege of enjoying the rest of them. So we give up the right to violence to the state, so that we may enjoy the right to life, property, free speech and so on.

A figure of merit, therefore, is how few of our liberties do we need to give up in order to enjoy the rest. North Koreans give up 90% of their liberties to enjoy the remaining 10%. North Americans give up 10% of their liberties to enjoy the 90%. I think India should aim to move towards the North American standard, rather than the North Korean standard.

6. FoE also becomes problematic when one weighs the consequences of utterances differently. For instance, liberals were up in arms about the ban on Wendy Doniger’s book, in the case of Charlie Hebdo and earlier, when Arundhati Roy was charged with sedition and jailed. But the very same people were also outraged when Honey Singh was to perform in India in the aftermath of the Delhi gangrape in 2012, given his offensive, provocative lyrics that were derogatory to women. Could you talk a little bit about the conflict there?

Again this is a specious generalisation. I’m sure there were liberals who defended the rights of both. The problem is not so much the liberals, but a mass of the population which gives in to populist sentiments. So we’ll have people claiming “Je suis Charlie Hebdo” because it is popular, we’ll have people supporting the ban on pornography, because that is the right thing to be seen saying, and we’ll have people asking Honey Singh to be banned.

The masses have no obligation to be logically consistent, or principled. We, the people, are selective in our morality and our principles. That’s our problem.

7. It is a problematic subject with no easy answers — but is FoE a myth? Does it exist? What kind of approach can one take to the concept?

Of course it is real and it exists. The very fact that we are debating the limits of our free speech is a statement to its existence, its importance and its acceptance in our society. Our only problem is that we want it to be self-serving!

3 thoughts on “The liberal nationalist position on free speech”

  1. Extremely balanced perspective, thanks!

    As you clearly pointed out, free speech is in fact a great tool to counter the enforcement of majority views. In fact the advancement of our civilization depends on minorities being heard.

    “It is only because the majority opinion will always be opposed by some that our knowledge and understanding progress. In the process by which opinion is formed, it is very probable that, by the time any view becomes a majority view, it is no longer the best view: somebody will already have advanced beyond the point which the majority have reached. It is because we do not yet know which of the many competing new opinions will prove itself the best that we wait until it has gained sufficient support.” — F.A.Hayek

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