Free expression for democracy

Free expression for democracy
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First Published: Tue, Nov 10 2009. 08 45 PM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Tue, Nov 10 2009. 08 45 PM IST
Freedom of expression is one of the most important cornerstones of a free and open society. Guarantees of freedom of expression allow citizens to learn about mistakes of the powerful and help reveal corruption at all levels.
This freedom must be protected, even if large sacrifices are required, since it aids in the formation and operation of “civil society” for citizens to have a voice against abuse of power. These organizations include universities, the media, NGOs and other associations of free people that wish to have their individual and collective views heard.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Unfortunately, grave threats are being raised that could seriously undermine freedom of expression. Unfortunately, elements of civil society have been mute in the face of this truly menacing threat.
Governments and international organizations are taking steps to limit free speech by insisting on limiting “hateful” speech or to criminalizing remarks that some might find blasphemous. With regard to this latter end, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously passed a resolution to codify exceptions to free speech involving “negative racial and religious stereotyping”.
While this restriction of “objectionable” speech has no direct enforcement, the end result is that religious sensitivities are clearly being privileged over rights of free expression.
As suggested above, elements of civil society that should champion free speech are either in retreat or asleep at the helm. Perhaps the most troubling acquiescence to attempts to mute the freedom of expression is seen in the academy.
In a bizarre twist, Yale University Press will publish The Cartoons That Shook the World by Jytte Klausen but will not republish the cartoons that the book is written about. The offending cartoons depicted Prophet Muhammad and appeared in a Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, in 2005. In turn, a small fringe of Muslim radicals responded by engaging in numerous lawless and violent acts.
It beggars belief that professors at Yale and elsewhere did not protest this ridiculous turn of events. Adding injury to insult, former UK prime minister Tony Blair, currently offering a course at Yale, stated support for censoring historical depictions of Muhammad, including the noted cartoons. Even America’s “newspaper of record”, The New York Times, refused to reproduce the cartoons when they initially appeared.
Taking steps to promote religious “tolerance” by imposing intolerance and criminalizing individuals to challenge the values of others is akin to “destroying a village to save it”. Since international human rights law aims to protect individual believers rather than systems of belief, the focus should be on violations of free expression instead of “abuses” of that right.
As it is, freedom of speech is about protecting those with views that go against the majority or to question their most cherished institutions. As such, it is a matter of patriotism that Americans wilfully accept that others burn their flag and Christians steel themselves against insults to their faith.
As a professional academic, I have a long record as an outspoken critic of both communism and socialism such that I spent much of my career engaged in heated debates with Marxists. Yet my right to criticize them depends upon communists and socialists being able to preach their (deeply flawed) ideas. Their right to express themselves must be protected even if history makes it evident that their credo is dangerous as evident in the millions that died at the hand of Mao and Stalin or Pol Pot.
In fact, I have been personally targeted for speaking out against suppression of the right to speak freely. While a university lecturer in South Africa, I criticized the logic of a group claiming to speak for the local Islamic community that sought to block a visit from Salman Rushdie and to ban his book, The Satanic Verses. My published remarks pointed out that their freedom to propagate their faith depended upon Rushdie’s freedom to offend. Rather than engage me in open debate, I was on the receiving ends of numerous threatening phone calls.
Not long after that, an organization that I was a member of in good standing debated whether to ban me from attending their conference because of my association with a South African university. It mattered not to the supporters of the proposition that I was an American citizen with a solid record as a vocal critic of apartheid.
The argument that won the day then is relevant now. People who entrust their beliefs in foolish or flawed ideas should be encouraged to voice them.
By airing ideas in a wide public forum, the implausibility of defective ideals will become evident to all. Perhaps even to their proponents! Don’t shout them down; let them shout their stupidity from the rooftops.
People who are secure in their beliefs and feel that they can withstand outside scrutiny or criticism should not feel threatened by others who challenge their views. Mark Twain expressed a sensible view against limiting free speech to avoid offending others, in saying: “The easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.”
Christopher Lingle is a research scholar at the Centre for Civil Society in New Delhi and visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin in Guatemala. Comment at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Tue, Nov 10 2009. 08 45 PM IST