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On abuse of free speech

I am not courting controversy but the recent spate of support for Charlie Hebdojournalists has compelled to note it here.

What Salman Rushdie perfected, Charlie Hebdo made a sport of. Both of them were not talking of religious extremism per se, they were mocking it. The medium was not a plain discussion, but a highly evolved satire. And they expected people to understand it.

Salman Rushdie got smart, went into an exile. Charlie Hebdo continued to say what it wanted unabashedly. Now people want to protect the right to free speech.

I don’t think that making insulting caricatures of someone else’s religious figures should be protected under the ambit of free speech. It dilutes the significance of life-threatening dare being undertaken by other agencies like Wikileaks or by people like Edward Snowden.

Religious tolerance means that people tolerate everyone’s religion, without having to criticize it. But Charlie Hebdo is essentially a magazine catering to people who have a taste for sarcasm. It doesn’t operate with a motive of creating any awareness, otherwise they would chose a different medium than satire to say it, something less offensive but more effective.

To put it simply, I think there are way too many posts in favor of Charlie Hebdo, which actually highlights how little people actually cared about the 139 children dead in Peshawar under a still more abhorrent terrorist attack.What stands out to me is, that murder of 9 individuals is what sparked off such a great campaign for freedom of expression while the murder of innocent children could barely elicit a response.

It’s understandable to see journalists vent out. It’s their community that has been hurt. But for you and me, I think neither Charlie Hebdo matters, nor the 139 children.

To draw a contrast, there are 2000 people, mostly children and women, dead in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram. The recent images showed whole villages leveled within a matter of weeks. And there are many more dying in Syria, Sudan, Congo daily, without a cry being raised for them.

Charlie Hebdo is really just a first world problem. When terrorists are Muslim, the world speaks out loud. But when the victims are also Muslim, the world shrugs and looks the other way.

I’m just exasperated by people going on and on about Charlie. I think the reason is not free speech. It’s sentimental. Charlie Hebdo had 3 very senior cartoonists who died in the shootings. Wolinski was 80 years old. Cabut and Honore were 76 years each. They must have had some pretty amazing legacy behind them. I’d say they would be akin to Pran (who drew ChachaChowdhary comics), so imagine if someone comes and shoots Pran, how a generation of Indians who grew up reading Chacha’s exploits, would feel. But sentimentality is all fine. Rationality is still vital for journalism, I think.

Some comments I received on opinions presented above:

RM: Terrorism and its criticism largely depends on the so-called visibility of the victims. Even though all of them are equally dastardly in nature, Charlie Hebdo and Peshawar shootings elicited a disproportionately higher number of condemnations from the general public as compared to insurgency related attacks in the north east, though a sizable number of innocent people died in both cases!

AK: … I checked out their pages to check out their posts. It is exactly what you said, it doesn’t operate with a motive of creating any awareness about religion. They were just mocking religion.

RJ: I don’t like what you’ve written. But I’m cool with it. Doesn’t mean I’m going to find you and kill you. Right ?

What RJ above says is quite the approach an open-minded person will take. This is a world of tolerance. At least that’s what we believe in. So it follows that people should have the right to criticize anyone openly without fear of death. No one has the right to reproach them. I don’t think that the people who shot the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdohad any such right, and I think I have not indicated any contrary viewpoint. I cannot condone violence, no one can! That’s the stupidest argument possible.

What I really mean is, that if someone wants to protect Charlie Hebdo’s right to insult a religious group blatantly, they are being shortsighted, perhaps biased. As Arthur Chu points out:

There’s no particular merit to being an “equal-opportunity offender”—indeed, it’s lazy and cheap, a way to avoid being held accountable for anything you say because none of it is part of a moral worldview or to be taken seriously.[1]

Charlie Hebdo were not a crusader for free speech. As the Arthur Chu points out, France is country where Muslims suffer racism daily. There are laws to dissuade women from wearing Hijab in public. I don’t know how a country can justify banning of religious symbols. It may be that they decided that Hijab is a symbol of gender inequality, but still, the government doesn’t have a right to decide what one can and cannot wear.

In such a scenario, a comic newspaper constantly criticizes this religious group, and by criticizing, I don’t mean anything of value. It’s just dirty and cheap criticism, like graffiti, it is “irreverent”. As the article above points out, there are no merits of being equally irreverent to everyone and everything! You can just as well not say anything, than try to offend everyone. You are not adding any value to the world. You don’t stand for anything.

But Charlie Hebdo was NOT even “equally irreverent”. The magazine fired a journalist when he tried to publish something anti-Semitic, so it is clear that this magazine had a sense of loyalty towards a certain group. Which reduces their cartoons to a charged racist monologue. Nothing more. I don’t know how anyone can justify that.

But here I think we need to remove ourselves from the perspective of Charlie Hebdo conflict altogether. The bigger is obviously freedom of speech in absoluteness. That is what the crusaders are asking for and Charlie Hebdo incident is merely the instigator.

In the words of DevduttPatnaik:

The intellectual can hurt with his/her words. The soldier can hurt with his/her weapons. We live in the world where the former is acceptable, even encouraged. The latter is not. It is a neo-Brahminism that the global village has adopted. Those who think and speak are superior to those who beat and kill, even if the wounds created by word-missiles can be deeper, last longer and fester forever. I, the intellectual, have the right to provoke; but you, the barbarian who only knows to wield violence, have no right to get provoked and respond the only way you know how to. If you do get provoked, you have to respond in my language, not yours, brain not brawn, because the brain is superior. I, the intellectual Brahmin, make the rules.[2]

Essentially, in the world of today, the hurt caused by speech is totally discounted. The reason being that it cannot be proven.Physical hurt can be dealt with easily, and thus prevented.But the crime of an intellectual done through the weapon of speech goes unpunished.Hence the intellectual has all the power in the world to himself, and not a shred of responsibility, because the intellectual also argues for complete freedom of expression. As Devdutt argues, the intellectual has really pushed the barbarian into a corner:

The thinker we are told is not a doer. The killings provoked by the thinker thus goes unnoticed. The thinker — the seed of the violence — chuckles as the barbarian, whose only vocabulary is physical, will be caught and punished while mental warfare will go on with brutal precision. When the ill-equipped barbarian even attempts to fight back using words, we mock him as the troll.[2]

Considering how effectively the above quote has put it, it may be said almost unfair to use it in the current argument. The society of today has changed so drastically that there is a greater mental crime going on, unaddressed, and there are crusaders who believe that the right to abuse someone mentally should be universally given. Much worse is the fact that the intellectually inferior, or the at least the less eloquent members of the society have been left no means to uphold their beliefs. The balance of the world, in a progressively more open society, has shifted in favor of the wizards of the words and the crude humans are expected to adapt their beliefs suddenly to those thinking at a faster pace.

It’s of course possible to counter argue that freedom of speech is important for a society. There are nations built upon the basic principle that a powerful individual should be vulnerable to criticism by the less powerful masses. But in the recent context, it becomes doubtful to decide who wields the real power and who is really the oppressed.

My two bit on the whole affair?Idon’t know why anyone would want to protect ugly things under free speech. What could you be wanting – that people should be able to draw obscene caricatures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses to get back at Indians, while totally ignoring how it affects the greater Hindu population?

Since this may potentially lead to a different debate altogether, let me just add, I’m not religious. It doesn’t matter to me if you draw Hindu gods naked or in any other inconceivably abhorrent manner in the name of art. But I can appreciate that some people draw more strength from their faiths than me. It’s wrong to disrespect that and take it away from them.


[1] Arthur Chu – Trolls and Martyrdom: Je Ne Suis Pas Charlie, The Daily Beast

[2] DevduttPattanaik – In maya, the killer and the killed, The Hindu

By: Shashank Garg

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