Moynihan’s Law

Should we be more concerned about places from where there are no complaints?

Busy week. But here’s something that should illuminate some of the current discourse on artists, freedoms and intolerance. Here’s the Wikipedia entry on Moynihan’s Law:

“The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there. The greater the number of complaints being aired, the better protected are human rights in that country.”

In other words, countries in which human rights are most severely violated are those where no freedom of speech or press is permitted. Also, complaints tend to be a direct function of the possibility of redress. This can be known as Moynihan’s law or Moynihan Syndrome. [Wikipedia]

Think of the various ways this law might apply in the context of the complaints about violations of rights in Baroda.

37 thoughts on “Moynihan’s Law”

  1. Srirangan,

    Even libertarianism provides you with no defence. Violates the ‘harm principle’ — you have the freedom to do what you like as long as it does not harm anyone else.

  2. >>you have the freedom to do what you like as long as it does not harm anyone else.

    Do you define “harm” as physical harm only?
    Do you mean that showing children porn is not harmful?

    And mind you, the exhibition was PUBLIC
    Quoting from The Pioneer

    In Britain a few years ago an artistic representation of Christ, similar to the one made in Baroda, was deemed outrageous and its exhibition prohibited by the Government. The matter went up to the European human rights authorities and the ban was upheld. The principle outlined was that free expression and freedom to articulate individual opinions – in textual or artistic form – is not a licence to indulge in abuse.

    Prof Panniker went one step further. Two days after Chandra Mohan’s exhibition (and exhibitionism), and ignoring entreaties and orders from the university management, he organised an impromptu exhibition of nude paintings under the pretext of showcasing medieval Indian art. In normal times, such an exposition would not have been a problem. Coming two days after a stormy incident, with the mood in the city decidedly charged, it was designed to hurt sentiments and raise passions. If nothing else, it was irresponsibility unbecoming of a senior academic and the university authorities were perfectly justified in taking disciplinary action against Prof Panniker.”

    Contrary to an erroneous impression being created, the paintings were not on display at a private gathering but, rather, at an exposition open to walk-in visitors.—

    After persuasion from the police, the paintings and other works of “art” were taken down and locked up in a room. Despite the anger of Jain and his compatriots, there was no major violence, no damage to university property and Chandra Mohan’s creations were left untouched. They are still safe in that room.

    The matter would have ended there had not, on May 11, Pannikar triggered another fire. Acting unilaterally and going against the orders of his superiors, he organised an impromptu exhibition of nude paintings under the rubric of “medieval art” and “Indian culture”. He refused written orders from the registrar to remove the paintings and insisted on displaying them through the night. This led to Pannikar’s suspension.——“

  3. Isn’t the point of freedom of expression that all of us (even artists!) have an inviolate right to (peacefully) offend?

    Isn’t the whole point of art to provoke thought and emotion (sometimes even revulsion) without having to endure mob violence?

    Isn’t mob violence against art an infinitely worse outrage than any possible provocation the said art may represent?

    Isn’t the notion that this issue merits argument and debate in “free” India profoundly disturbing?

    Best regards

  4. Primary Red,

    You come in with some very good arguments. I put it more prosaically in my comment on Sandeep’s blog—that a civilisation that constrains academic and artistic freedom is one that is losing its way.

    There are two issues at hand here, and they’ve gotten mixed up in the heated debate. One—how do we see these events from the perspective of a society (and laws) that we should have; and two—how do we see them from the perspective of the society (and especially laws) that we actually have.

  5. Primary Red, answer to your last question: If a society debates, asks questions and seeks answers on sensitive issues like these, it is a sign that that society is a healthy one. On the other hand, a society which doesnt question itself is a society so stagnant and moribund that it blindly accepts whatever comes its way with the modernity (which is a very subjective matter.) That is the kind of society which is losing its way, not the one which has lively debates on sensitive issues. It is a good sign that we as a society are debating this issue, and that particular aspect is hardly a cause for concern.

  6. Correction to the last comment. Please read it as “… everything that comes its way with the LABEL of modernity.”

  7. Atlantean:

    Fair enough.

    OTOH, the idea of free expression is a fundamental aspect of our constitution –not some passing fad labelled as modernity.

    That some Indians — based on their violence against free expression — do not understand what this idea is all about a half a century after the founding of the republic is surely a disturbing notion.

    Best regards

  8. Primary Red, what you say is true to an extent but you probably misunderstood me. By modernity, I did not mean freedom of expression. I meant licentiousness, obscenity and sadism being labelled as modernity. One can draw whatever he likes but I find it unacceptable when someone tells me it is modernity and expects me to believe and accept it as such (calling me a fascist or moral police or cultural vigilante if I have a rather different opinion.)

  9. Sri wrote:
    >> >>you have the freedom to do what you like as long as it does not harm anyone else. [Nitin]
    >>Do you define “harm” as physical harm only?
    Do you mean that showing children porn is not harmful?
    >>And mind you, the exhibition was PUBLIC

    I don’t think that “harm” can be restricted to mean “physical harm” only. Not in my libertarian books, at least. Having said that, too much is being made of the exhibits being in the “public” domain, and somehow therefore they are taken to cause “mental harm” to some of the viewers. I beg to differ.

    An exhibition being public does not mean that it infringes on the private rights of those who can “walk in” and be offended. Chandramohan and Prof. Panikkar are not forcing the “public” to view their exhibits. It’s quite like my website, Tasneema Nasreen’s “Lajja”, the Tamil newspaper “Dinakaran, or the erotic sculptures in Ellora, Khajuraho, Konarak, and dozens of other temples across India. They are all open to the “public” with or without a fee, but none is violating Mr. or Ms. Public’s right of decline. The paintings are not exhibited in the front yard of the private home of Mr. Jain. And, the porn stars are not forcing the schools to screen their creations, either!

    Disturbing signs of dystopia in India indeed!

  10. Atlantean, you make a very good point.
    A society which is both very religious and very pliant of
    perceived insults to its religious sentiments is not
    exactly a healthy society. And i say this as an atheist.

    One question I have is, what should be the proper response of
    healthy, self-respecting AND religious society? Would’ve non-violent
    protests and pressures on the artists and the university been ok?
    Or should there have been no protests?

  11. 7*6

    what should be the proper response of (a) healthy, self-respecting AND religious society?

    Excellent question. A conclusive answer itself is beyond the scope of the discussion on this blog, although I’d encourage readers to make at attempt at doing so. But I wish the public discourse, not least in the mainstream media, would frame the issue as you have done.

  12. Rational Fool,

    No it is not like your website,

    It is a public university funded by taxpayer’s money. As a taxpayer I object to pay money to depict “Ma Durga” or Lord Jesus Christ in such a despicable manner. It is almost as if living as a dhimmi.

    If someone is that enamoured by sick mind of ChandraMohan, let him fund from his pocket, not from mine.

  13. 7*6,

    You asked:

    One question I have is, what should be the proper response of
    healthy, self-respecting AND religious society? Would’ve non-violent
    protests and pressures on the artists and the university been ok?
    Or should there have been no protests?

    There should be protests but without violence. The protest must be what it is: a protest, a way of expression, nothing more.

  14. Gaurav,

    The public vs private dimension is interesting. Would your arguments be different if the school, the work and the exhibition were entirely privately funded, but open to the public?

  15. Gaurav,

    Well, taxpayers certainly have a right to insist how the government spends its money. The problem may not lie in principle, but in practice. (See why good censors are hard to find). Moreover, in India’s case, taxpayers are a small fraction of the electorate, so the government might not actually reflect their desires (even if we assume the government reflects the desires of the electorate)

  16. Nitin, thanks for the censhorship post link, it was very interesting.
    Realizing it is a matter of practice and not just principle clarifies the question of what to do.

    Even as regards principle, authoritarian impulses like censorship are basically a byproduct of communitarianism — of a group of people behaving as one. Communitarianism is important however — they mould humans, they result in culture.

    It is thus important to not curb communitarianism per se, but to curb its authoritarian impulses, even as a matter of principle.
    e.g. my previous question of extrapolating a self-respecting individual to a self-respecting society was a dangerous one, for it draws upon the authoritarian aspect of communitarianism.

  17. Gaurav wrote:
    >> … It is a public university funded by taxpayers’ money. As a taxpayer I object to pay money to depict “Ma Durga”…

    Yes, and I object to the tax payer’s money being spent on the distribution of free TV’s, seats in higher educational institutions, aborting fetuses, doles for producing greenhouse gases, tickets to Mecca… well just about everything that a government does that it should not be doing with the tax payers’ money. We could object to what the government does for all we want, but do something about it only once in two, four, or five years in a representative democracy, so let’s get rid of taxes, shall we?

    Let me get back to earth from my fantasy world. Not all institutions funded with the tax-payers’ money are founded with a charter that vests the public or their representatives with complete control over their policies. Some are on a dangerously slippery slope [the so called autonomous institutions such as the universities, FED, etc.], some others are dangling their feet from a precipice [public sector enterprises?], and the rest are at the bottom. It is important that we protect the freedom, or whatever that is left of it, of the former two as best as we can, lest they should follow their unfortunate siblings into the abyss. [I think 7*6 warns of the same danger more elegantly, and with fewer words :)]

  18. All those who are worried about authoritarianism and Hindu fascists, where does it stop? Offstumpted quotes HT op-ed describing sexual positions of Hanuman and Sita – from those paintings that no one can see on TV or print because of the news blackout by main street media, conveniently, by the, hypocritical, free expression police (not really a blackout, more like whitewashing part of the story).

    What is next – child molesting, sexual intercourse between son and mother (Hanuman considered Sita his Mother), bestiality? Where does the numbed out secular brigade stop? Is there no morality left at the alter of free expression? Apparently the fascists will have to fold their hands, wait on the sidelines, while the secularists and atheists can walk all over their believe system and social morality – all based on borrowed concepts that don’t have any legal or moral basis in the society they actually live in.

  19. Rational Fool

    How about you campaign to stop state funding for free TVs ? I find your argument that since tax is being misued for some other purpose I should pay money so that ,liberals can take poop at my belief beyond ridiculous. Look, you want to stoke your rationalism by insulting my gods, do it with your own money, in case you were not paying attention,secularists are no more conscience keeper of all Indians

  20. Chandra, I too believe that no, the believers do not have to fold their hands, they can (and probably should) express their outrage, exert pressure and so on, within the realms of legal expression.

    The problem comes when this *individual* expression of outrage against an insult to a communitarian concept — religion — becomes a communitarian expression of outrage. An example of the latter would be a govt ban on the artists’s paintings, or putting the artist in jail. This is problematic because such communitarian expressions of outrage are

    a. authoritarian. They would prevent any change in society, and without any change, there would be decay.
    b. as Nitin pointed out, they also have inherent implementation and abuse issues. The “moral police” would typically be goondas with ulterior motives.

  21. If I’d be allowed a bit of speculation, I’d posit that the most vibrant religious societies are those
    where religion is less communitarian and more individual — the US for example.
    This allows the society to be both very religious as well as not authoritarian.
    Whereas societies like Italy — are both less religious than the US and more likely to have communitarian
    responses to art like Piss Christ.

    The individualistic Bhakti aspect of Hinduism allowed it to be very tolerant — as a community — towards insults. The moment it started getting centralized — RSS et al — authoritarian intolerance increased.

    PanIslamic Umma — uber communitarianism — is the reason why Muslims, as a community, are so intolerant.

    But I’m not saying there shouldn’t be communitarian aspects to a religion at all — that would not be good for its preservation, for its use towards societal betterment.
    There needs to be a balance though — the US has been able to do it somehow, we should learn from them. I wish some Indian theologians/historians would analyze this.

  22. The articulate Arun Jaitley has a piece in the Indian Express today. It’s well-argued as far as the current legal position on it in India is concerned. Jaitley could have done much better if he didn’t try to argue what is, and what is not “artistic freedom”. Also his defence—that the “art” was blasphemous to Christianity as well as Hinduism—addresses only those who characterised this as an ‘Hindutva’ issue.

    It does not address the criticisms of those who think that the religion of the blasphemer and the religion of the protestor does not matter as far as the fundamental issue is concerned.

  23. 7*6’s discussion of communitarian impulses is quite interesting.

    However, it is a tricky matter to ascribe blame on issues like Baroda on the communitarian nature of religion alone — this surely contributes, but there is no obvious reason why communitarian protests necessarily need to descend into violence. A civillized yet communitarian protest would be entirely acceptable — indeed appropriate — in such circumstances.

    Instead, perhaps the violence is rooted in our fast molting social structure –where (sometimes foreign) modernity collides everyday with (sometimes stilted) tradition. There are a great number of resentments such change creates which are then (alas, all too frequently) given expression in violent communitarian protest.

    While the parallel is not fully accurate and in some ways unfair to India, this inevitably reminds one of the situation prevailing in Germanic Europe in early 20th century — where rural (largely Eastern) volk struggled with the startlingly new values of their urban (largely Western) compatriots. The consequence of their communitarian responses to these perceived provocations were two major European wars and genocide.

    Communitarianism thus created leverage for, and grotesquely amplified, a deeper insecurity in the volk. However, to blame the former for the violence that followed is like blaming a microphone for the sins of a demagogic speaker.

    India’s challenge is, therefore, not the faith or communitarian identities of our people — rather, it is our staggeringly diverse understandings of modernity and the values implied by our national institutions. The latter create the sparks which the former fans into bitter fires.

    Only time can forge the needed compromises that will keep the nation from burning down. One had hoped that a half century after the Republic, these compromises would have been already forged — clearly, and frustratingly, such is not the case.

    While we wait for time to do its thing, all we can hope is that our national institutions will not fray too much under this stress and can douse these inevitable fires.

    Best regards

  24. Nitin – Well you have to forgive Jaitley for he has to toe the Party Line to some degree, cant get away from the Hindutva angle. On the same token it was creditable that he atleast went on record with his personal feelings against censorship. You dont very often see that level of candor but for maybe from an Arun Shourie.

    Overall spirited and balanced debate on the blogs, the public debate in the media has been largely one sided and the TV news coverage, especially the NDTV interview of the artist in question was rather tame.

  25. Good discussion here esp the points from 7*6 & primary red. Am not very sure abt Moynihans Law overall, it looks like some Scandinavian countries would fail -a largely homogenous, liberalized society with an abiding repsect for freedom of expression will have few such complaints.

    On the other hand, melting pot mixes on the make towards development will likely have more violation. Getting these reported is indeed a good sign but not enough.


  26. >>>The public vs private dimension is interesting. Would your arguments be different if the school, the work and the exhibition were entirely privately funded, but open to the public?

    I raised the same point as Gaurav did on sandeepweb. I guess a privately funded exhibition may be more amenable than say a publicly funded org putting it up. Because an opposite group can organize a counter exhibition- a legitimate form of protestation I suppose.

    I also suggested other forms of protest. People who have objected to the paintings on the univ. campus–there was no violence, all the work is still safe, contrary to what media reported–should carry with them material that the free-speech panzers are bound to recoil at. Hold them for their word and ask them if they would support a mass public/student reading of passages from Satanic Verses on the univ. ground, seminars on relevance of Nazism and Pol Pot’s tactics; a public competetion for best local variations of Danish cartoons open to children; billboards with the display of prominent Danish cartoons or Satanic verses; free ad space for the same in secular dailies/TV channels (since they too are offended by the so-called offense on free speech etc.); painting competition on “European roots” with a Sonia theme, mixed-european Indian children them (you get it) etc.

    There is no country or society where free-speech is absolute–the liberal Dutch got rid of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and the Americans would never allow anti-semitic stuff anywhere close to public spaces- Aside, they actually do if you follow the videos of muslim student groups posted on rightist blogs like LGF etc. The reporting in Indian media is quite dishonest as they have- 1. not provided details about the paintings except Pioneer 2. not shown the paintings( won’t that be the most obvious way of defending freedom of speech that they clamor for?) 3. glossed over other inconvenient facts (christian group participation and the lack of vandalism or violence in the MS episode) 4. not articulated exactly how this opposition has or will stymie intellectual pursuits(Hindu groups have never come in the way of scientific work as the christian or muslims have; have never vandalized erotic work of art displays that do not get into contemporary religious beliefs)

    The media and free-speech vigilante group’s effort amounts to bullying the majority into submission under false notions of free speech and making an example of it, while the minorities will get away with their censorship. This is hypocritical at best and self-serving to say the least.

    My effort is not to downplay free-speech but for its consistent and gradual advocacy in keeping with the evolving social consensus. Free speech does not exists in vacuum but is a based on mutual politeness which is disturbingly lacking in this sordid episode. [Strangely no one has argued for the free-speech rights of Dera Sacha Sauda chief or the gagging of Dinakaran published polls.)

  27. >>>The individualistic Bhakti aspect of Hinduism allowed it to be very tolerant — as a community — towards insults. The moment it started getting centralized — RSS et al — authoritarian intolerance increased.

    Can you elaborate on this? There are several Bhakti (localized religious movements) which are free of RSS influence, but which would react in the same manner if their beliefs were offended. It is my guess that something similar on Amtrinandmayi, Mira, Ayyapa, Saibaba, Ramdeobaba etc., would spur a similar response. If you have counter examples please do mention. You don’t have to(to avoid getting into the burden of proof-type argumentation) but I am curious if there are any such instances. And I think the attacks on Saibaba or others by Westerners doesn’t elicit similar response for a different reason, hence they won’t qualify as a legit example.

  28. what does this tell you about israel, from which issue an incessant stream of complaints, vs. the palestinian authority and hamas, from which only a trickle emerges?

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