Free speech is a basic right that empowers marginalised lives

It is a mistake to see free speech as an elite indulgence. It is a basic right that preconditions the realisation of other rights. So basic that it enables the weak and the oppressed to rise against their oppressors.

The horrific beheading of the French teacher, Samuel Paty, has once again laid bare the fault lines of free speech. Tabish Khair’s piece (‘Lost in Paris’, IE, October 30) represents one such crack. Khair’s piece is a crying appeal against those who kill in the name of their gods and ideas, to not kill. Do not kill or afflict injury to bodies that bear contrarian ideas, he seems to be saying. And he is right — how can he not be?

I also agree with Khair that there is a need to respect people’s religion and not be provocative in the aftermath of the gruesome killing — as the French government as been in asking school teachers to show cartoons in class, or by projecting the cartoons on buildings. I hear him when he says that a competitive exercise of offensive speech may cost lives.

But Khair also seems to be saying something else, albeit in a veiled and guarded manner. He gives the example of the “dedicated French teacher who showed the cartoons to his students in good faith” in the exercise of his free speech. He also gives the example of the “some custodians of [Islamic] religious symbols in France who get outraged” and “post intemperate things on social media”, also in exercise of their free speech. Between the freedom of expression of the French teacher, and the freedom of outraged protestors against it, stands the figure of, as Khair euphemistically calls, an “angry confused man” who is “provoked” into beheading the teacher. To Khair, it does not matter whether ideas are good or bad. What matters is that in the conflict between the two ideas of free speech and sanctity of religio-cultural symbols lives were either lost or made to suffer.

It is here that Khair’s perspective becomes conservative in its implications. First, the fact that a barbaric, crazy man can either get offended or inspired by either of the conflicting ideas cannot be a “free-speecher’s” burden. There are many volatile ideas out there. Should any protest or campaign be mindful of a potential violent twist that may be given to their ideas? Should a causal link between the expression of “offensive ideas” and sufferance of bodies allow violent zealots to hold the right to ransom?

Second, unlike what Khair suggests, ideas have no real, independent existence outside of the bodies in which they inhere. Ideas survive only because the bodies in which house themselves do so. Had ideas lived autonomously, independent of the bodies and minds that carry them, ideas would not die. They’d be immortal and live on endlessly outside of their historical times, sociological habitats and changing minds. We would continue to believe that the earth is flat or in the practice of slavery or the absence of voting rights for women. But we don’t. And the reason is that some ideas die or weaken over time. They become anomalous and discredited either because they are disputed scientifically or because they are contested vigorously and passionately till an anachronistic idea is defeated.

Third, in the conflicting terrain of ideas, lies the kernel of social change. If ideas are not “good or bad” as Khair seems to be saying, how else do we discredit the Brahminical divine origin theory that professes that the Shudra is born from the Divine Being’s feet and, therefore, is the lowliest creature on earth? How else, except through a conflict of ideas, do women contest patriarchy and push back on received gendered ideas of womanhood? How else has the idea of “environmentalism” or indigenous communities’ rights become such a dominant concern of our times?

Agency to speech may often be a matter of one man’s good versus another man’s good, or one man’s relative truth over another’s. It may be a matter of one cultural value-system (the French and their free-speech principle) versus another religio-cultural sensibility (the sacredness of the Prophet). Till this point, both speech-acts (or ideas) have equivalence and each person must have the right to speak freely. But once you kill or inflict bodily harm in the name of an idea, the onus and responsibility of it is not on the people professing or countering an idea. So that we don’t offend a loony guy who picks up a gun and shoots, or so that we don’t inspire a crazy man to behead someone in the name of ideas, must we dispense with expressing the idea itself? It is borderline dangerous to make such a suggestion, no matter how obliquely.

Freedom of speech and expression may have been an Enlightenment, coloniser’s project and may actually continue to be so, sanctioning Islamophobia, racism and ideas of cultural superiority. But to belabour the point outside of its context is to miss two points. First, as Lebanese-Australian academic Ghassan Hage summed up in his Facebook post: Truth also needs to have its ethics. You may be truthful, but unethical. The beheading of Paty requires us to dwell on not just any killing but the bone-chilling barbarism behind it. To dwell instead on the genealogies and causes of violent behaviour is bad ethics, for it ends up being nothing more than an apologia for violence.

Second, it’s bad politics. The right to free speech empowers and enables many marginalised lives. It is a mistake to see it as an elite indulgence. It is a basic right that preconditions the realisation of other rights. So basic that it enables the weak and the oppressed to rise against their oppressors. It enables culturally disparate communities, including Muslims, to embody and carry with pride their cultural differences. In any case, free speech is restrained by the state through its many criteria of “reasonableness”. To further circumscribe it by burdening it with plausible violent appropriations, or with historical conditionalities, is to feed the logic of violence against freedom of expression.

This article first appeared in the print edition on November 4, 2020 under the title ‘Nothing elitist about free speech’. The writer teaches political science at Janki Devi Memorial College, Delhi University

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