It hurts but right to offend should stay
Free speech has been much in the news recently: Salman Rushdie; the writers who read from The Satanic Verses in Jaipur; Jeremy Clarkson; and even Jay Leno. Though every case is different, the uproars that have resulted serve to reflect how much our society has lost sight of the underlying principle that must govern all our decisions on freedom of speech.
One indication of how confused we are comes from the manner in which politicians, activists and commentators keep assuring us that the right to freedom of speech does not give us the right to offend people.
This is nonsense.
In fact, the whole principle of freedom of speech is predicated on the right to offend.
Consider a society where everyone said nice things about everyone else. Would such a society ever need to enshrine the right to freedom of speech in its constitution? There would be no reason to do so because nobody ever got offended.
You only need the right to free speech when you want to offend people. Gandhiji offended the British by calling them tyrannical colonialists. Martin Luther King upset the US establishment by pointing out that large parts of America were run by racists. Ang Sang Suu Kyi has upset the Burmese junta by pointing to the despotic nature of its regime.
Gandhiji and Suu Kyi were not offered constitutional guarantees of free speech. Martin Luther King was. And when the US refused to honour them in full, the true nature of American segregation was revealed: one law for the whites and one law for the blacks.
So, the right to offend is not just at the heart of every struggle for justice, it is the bedrock of every liberal society. Take away the right to offend and we might as well be governed by a junta or an imperialist power.
Where does the right to offend end?
At some intuitive level, we know that we must place as few limitations as possible on this right. The Opposition should be able to get up and attack the government no matter how much this offends the Prime Minister. You and I must retain the right, when we post articles on the internet or publish them in print, to speak our minds, no matter how many people we offend.
One logical restraint on the right to offend, accepted by all liberal societies, is defamation. Let’s take an example. If I say that you are an idiot, then I am exercising my right to free speech no matter how angry it makes you. But if I say that you beat your wife – and there is no factual basis for this claim – then I am defaming you.
The usual test for defamation is that a statement must not falsely accuse somebody of behaviour that is illegal or is likely to cause his reputation to suffer unless that statement is true. It is the difference between expressing an opinion (“You are an idiot”) and making an allegation (“You beat your wife”).
But even within the laws of defamation, all liberal societies make allowances for satire. For instance, nobody who watches the Gustakhi Maaf show on NDTV India in which puppets resembling Indian politicians perform a variety of despicable acts, believes that the politicians actually perform these acts. We realise that this is satire, the product of some writer’s imagination, designed to amuse us.
Sadly, the Indian government does not get this distinction. Jay Leno routinely makes fun of American politicians for satirical purposes. Nobody believes that his jokes amount to serious allegations. Audiences laugh and then forget what was said. If one of these jokes includes a satirical reference to a US politician’s use of the Golden Temple as a summer home, we may not necessarily find this funny but we recognise that it is meant to be a gag: nobody uses the Golden Temple as a summer home.
It is possible that some people who do not have a sense of humour are offended by this joke. It is possible that the joke was pretty tasteless to begin with and therefore offensive. But that doesn’t matter. The fact that I am offended does not in any way curtail Jay Leno’s right to free speech.
So it is with Jeremy Clarkson. The British TV presenter has made a career out of travelling the world and making derogatory remarks about other countries and their people. Some of the jokes are funny. Some are not. Sometimes his targets laugh the jokes off. Sometimes they get offended.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. The same principle applies: there is no reason for Clarkson to shut up only because some of us are offended.
The Salman Rushdie case is a little more complicated. The laws of defamation clearly do not apply. Nobody is likely to believe that The Satanic Verses is based in fact or that genuine allegations have been made. Because the book is not satirical, the satire defence does not apply either.
The only objection we can have to the book is that it offends some people. So, the usual responses should be given: he has a perfect right to offend you and if you are so offended, don’t read the damn thing anyway.
Most of us would have been pleased with these responses except for two factors. The first is the religion element. For some reason, we believe that if a man says about us that we are morons, then this is fine. But that if his view of our God is not to our liking, then we have every reason to curtail his freedom of speech.
As arguments go, this is weak stuff. Admittedly, Rushdie’s view of Allah is not the same as some mullah’s view of Islam. But so what? Both Rushdie and the mullah have the same right to hold a view on the nature of Allah. Why should the mullah’s view carry more weight than Rushdie’s?
You can’t even use the usual response here: if you are so offended, then don’t read the book. Because the truth is that the overwhelming majority of those who are protesting have actually never read The Satanic Verses. And even if the book was not banned, I doubt if they would still have bothered to read it.
So, we are not dealing with people who are offended by what Rushdie says. We are dealing with people who have not even read the book in order to be offended. They are simply upset that such a book – which they’ve heard is anti-Islamic – should ever have been written.
Can any liberal society which values free speech afford to take such objections seriously? And if it does, then what does it say about that society’s commitment to freedom?
Because the ‘giving offence’ argument is so weak in the Rushdie case, those who want to ban the book have fallen back on another argument. Now they say that if a book like this is published, then it will lead to violence.
And why should it lead to violence? Well, because the same people who had never read the book and who we agreed had no right to demand a ban will now run riot setting fire to property and killing people.
A genuinely liberal society should recognise this for what it is: a law and order problem and not a free speech issue. If people threaten to riot because, say, Hyderabad is not part of Telengana, we don’t immediately create a new state overnight and transfer Hyderabad to it. If people threaten to riot because the Babri Masjid has not been handed over to Hindus, then we send in police forces and open fire if the violence threatens to spiral out of control.
But when it comes to free speech, we don’t act against those who threaten violence. Instead, we turn against those whose right to free speech we should be protecting.
There are two immediate consequences to this surrender. The first is that any group that wants to earn publicity for itself, threatens violence over books, movies, TV shows, etc. because it knows that the government will capitulate. (How absurd is it that even Jodha Akbar is banned in Rajasthan because some Rajput organisation protested?)
The second is that society itself forgets what liberalism is. And so, you have the pathetic and sorry spectacle of the government of the world’s largest democracy creating a diplomatic incident over a joke on the Jay Leno show.
When a government stops thinking straight, then the very principles on which this nation was founded, are in danger of being subverted.
And sadly, that’s what seems to be happening today.