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Saying it all | The Indian Express

If the army feels it requires continuation of the AFSPA to discharge its responsibilities, no other agency is qualified to credibly challenge that view. Why is the US being seen as an idealistic outlier on free speech? The global debate over speech defaming religion is once again intensifying. President Obama,in his recent address to the UN General Assembly,while denouncing the vile video that sparked off a wave of shameful and disgusting violent protests from Tunisia to Pakistan,roundly defended Americas sacred icon: the First Amendment. But it is a sad historical fact that the United States is increasingly being seen as an outlier on free speech issues. The rest of the world,in some way or the other,is too easily embracing restrictions on free speech. European courts have long upheld the validity of blasphemy laws. They have also upheld a tricky distinction between doctrine and the manner in which it is expressed. Of course,the US,despite the First Amendment,does not have an unsullied history on freedom of expression; and this history complicates its authority on the matter. There is also something to the curious insight Mark Twain had about freedom in the US,Americans have freedom of speech and the freedom of thought and the good sense never to use either. Often,the legal doctrine of free speech has an easier time in contexts where unarticulated social restraints do not produce too much conflict. It is not hard to imagine,for example,that the history of the First Amendment might have been different if the US has been besieged by gratuitous representations of Christ. In short,in certain areas,social self-restraint put less pressure on the legal system. But this sociological truth has two corollaries. The first is relevant to India. In the Indian context,the state has provided woefully inadequate protection for freedom of expression. While the Indian state is becoming less tolerant,it does not imply that society is becoming less tolerant. In fact,the opposite might be true. In some areas,at least,it is precisely because more people are thinking the previously unthinkable,breaking through taboos of social restraint,that conflicts over free speech are intensifying. Although,in other areas,the state is using its power in abusive ways. Pakistan has a frighteningly cruel blasphemy regime. But the ease with which we file sedition cases suggests that in legal terms sedition is threatening to become for India what blasphemy is for Pakistan. And there are parallels: the most heightened sensitivity to speech comes either from religion or nationalism. Improperly handled,both,in some ways,can consecrate death; both have elements of idolatry; both partake of a language of collective self-esteem and produce fragility in the self that has a will to repression. The second corollary is this: no matter what ones view of the appropriate legal regime regulating speech,the question of self-restraint in speech is an important one. It is a sign of moral progress that in many societies ethnic jokes and slurs become rarer,even though there is no change in legal regime. Sikh jokes,for example,have considerably diminished. In the US,for example,Catholics are not stigmatised through speech in the quite the same way they were in the 19th century. The demand for protection against defamation of religious icons is premised on treating it as a form of hate speech. By this view,to insult the prophet is to encourage Islamophobia and by extension hate against Muslims. But this argument quickly elides the distinction between respecting persons and respecting things they value. Obviously,there are complicated philosophical issues here. But politically and psychologically we have to recognise that the distinction between lampooning religion and stigmatising believers is becoming harder to project. But maintaining this distinction is important. Second,why self-restraint is shown with respect to some forms of stigma and not to others is also a deep cultural question. But even though these cultural questions are important,it is doubtful that they are best handled by legal repression of speech. Indeed,the fact that norms can change should be a presumptive argument against involving the state. So we should admit that there are important issues in the cultural politics of free speech that need to be addressed. But a constant reference to this cultural politics is really a way of obscuring rather than clarifying the issue. Sure,the violent protests against the video often draw upon a congealed history of being at the receiving end of the power of the US. But that does not,in any way,make them legitimate. If anything,it does irreparable harm even to legitimate causes,such as those of the Palestinians,to club them under the normatively dubious banner of defending Islam against free speech. Tying the fate of free speech to geopolitical power is a big moral mistake. Most anti-free speech protests are simply demagoguery in disguise. Believers often complain that the presence of a few fundamentalists is often used as an excuse to tar the whole community. But the reverse is equally true: a few abusers of free speech should also not be identified with the rest. And the rights of the majority should not be circumscribed based on the actions of a few abusers. Certain forms of speech can be degrading. But the ease with which speech offensive to religion is equated with violence is troubling. Nevertheless,the USs relative isolation on free speech issues should be a cause for worry. We live in an age of cultural misrepresentation,and one form of misrepresentation is to see the free speech debate as one between the West and the rest. The speed with which governments and courts across the world are caving in to the demands of religious zealots or the feigned hyper-sensitivity of believers is alarming. This caving in also gives succour to those who do want to maliciously provoke conflict by speech. For they know governments will respond. The strongest argument for defending the US style First Amendment is that making laws to cater to the most demagogic or the most hypersensitive does not produce more freedom; it only leaves the spirit of freedom hostage to them. In the long run,living with differences will require us to be more in tune with the First Amendment,not less. And a belief that it is gods job to protect us,not ours to protect god would also help. The writer,president of the Centre for Policy Research,is contributing editor,The Indian Express
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