& occasionally about other things, too...

Saturday, March 11, 2017

In defence of free speech


There’s a lot of talk these days about the need to separate the idea of free speech from hate speech. Admittedly, the line between the two is often ill-defined and obscure, and while all attempts at hate speech need to be prevented, it is equally important not to put any unnecessary restraints on free speech, especially on any form of artistic expression.
What should be extremely worrisome in this context is the authority that the government automatically assumes in arbitrating on matters of art and taste - matters that are always subjective.

Considering the extremely subjective nature of any artistic endeavour, it is likely, especially in these divisive days, where nearly everything is segregated into ‘us’ and ‘them’, that an expression of art – whether it is a painting or a film or a documentary – may likely offend some sensibilities, even when it appeals to others.
India has a long and sordid history of the ignorant officials interfering in artistic endeavours, especially in the public exhibition of films. In spheres where such control is not possible by the government machinery, ideological vigilantism is encouraged to impose unofficial censorship on art by acts of vandalism and violence.

India has an unsavory history of restricting freedom of expression. From banning of books that narrate blasphemous verses to withholding certification to exhibit films that are perceived to be controversial, and from tearing down paintings that don’t adhere to a specific ideologically-driven belief system, to driving away globally-renowned artists from their homeland to die in an alien land, Indians are intolerant of a contrarian view.


India’s thin-skinned sensitivity to anything that differs from its self-image as the world’s largest democracy and a rapidly-growing economy is legendary and growing exponentially under a regime that views everything from a narrowly defined cultural nationalism.
Anything that portrays the country in any other way is not tolerated. The controversy over Reza Aslan’s documentary on an obscure sect of Hindus that is part of a larger series on Believers on CNN is now the ire of nearly every Indian or person of Indian origin with access to social media. (Read an opinion piece here: Scroll

This is hardly surprising. But what has come as a shock is that such ultra sensitivity is even present in Canada. Recently, Parks Canada did not permit the making of a film (Hard Powder) that depicts an indigenous person as a gang leader.  This, in my view, is political correctness being taken to the extreme. (Read news report here: CBC)
Yes, it is stereotypical to portray indigenous people as criminals, but to me the solution to the ethical dilemma that the tussle between free and hate speech is simple: If something bothers you, don’t see it or read it. There are many who may not be offended by it. And there are many who may be offended by what you find artistically, ideologically or factually inoffensive.  

For governments, the simple path to follow in all such matters should be not to fund anything that may be perceived as hate speech by any (even the minutest) section of the society. It should not be the arbiter of taste, and never assume the power to decide what the people should read and watch.

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