Sunday, December 9, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Free Speech

(This first appeared in the Sunday Guardian)

Most of the time, whenever someone talks about supporting free speech in this country, they always end up following it with a qualifier. “I’m all for free speech, but we need to have some restrictions!” Even the constitution does the same thing. You can have freedom of speech and expression, but within reasonable restrictions. And that’s where the problem begins, when we leave those ‘reasonable restrictions’ up for interpretation. With each successive generation, the ‘reasonable restrictions’ keep expanding while the space for free speech & expression keeps getting narrower. You can take a walk in this park and get some fresh air, as long as you also breathe in all the toxic smoke coming in from the factory next to it.

This has been a banner year for all the free speech restrictionists. Whether it involves preventing writers from speaking at literary festivals, or stopping artists from displaying their wares. They even managed to turn something as mundane as posting something on the internet into an act of civil disobedience. Free speech is one of those things which are defined by absolutes. Either speech is free or it’s restricted. When you add a qualifier, it’s an invitation for other people to do the same.

The Internet has been one of the biggest battlefields in the war on free speech. Recently, when a couple of young adults were arrested for posting harmless updates on Facebook, the Minister of Communication and ‘India’s nanny,’ Kapil Sibal, said that he was quite saddened by the misuse of the IT act. He was shocked that a law put in specifically to suppress dissent, was being used to suppress dissent. That’s like putting a ‘for rent’ sign outside your house and then wondering where all the prospective tenants came from. He didn’t start the fire, he just wrote a vague piece of legislation which could be widely interpreted and misused even by those who apply the law using the most stringent standards. When you don’t trust another party with the law you’ve made, then there is something wrong with your law. You don’t leave the door to the henhouse wide open and then get to pretend that you could never even imagine that the fox would go inside.

People like Dr. Eyebrows would like you to believe that the internet is one huge quagmire of filth from which they need to protect the innocent and the impressionable. They portray the internet as some huge lawless wasteland where anything goes; a wild, wild west where duels are fought by drowning your opponent in a quick stream of sarcasm and won by the first person to be compared with Hitler. They don’t use the internet themselves so they imagine it to be somewhat of a virtual Bangkok where temptation lurks in each corner.

What they conveniently miss is the Internet’s ability to correct itself. Most of the properties in this so called wasteland are owned by huge corporations whose interest resides in removing malicious content. Even Reddit, the ‘Uttar Pradesh’ of the internet, has removed content deemed inappropriate or malicious.

Of course our elected representatives are not big on discussions. They spend all their life shouting over each other, whether in Parliament or on teevee.

But what about us?

Free speech doesn’t just involve being able to say what you want. It also means being able to say what you want without being intimidated to take it back. It involves being able to write a book without being placed on the wrong side of an angry mob. Free speech means being able to question a national celebration of death without being questioned about your patriotism. It involves being able to have a character in your movie call a city by any name you want. Free speech means not throwing a tantrum on national teevee because someone on the internet was mean to you. It involves being able to hear things you don’t like, no matter how angry it makes you. Free speech means keeping all your ‘hurt sentiments’ to yourself.

I, for one, think that people need to be more tolerant of other’s opinions.

Hey, if you don’t believe me, ask all the people I blocked on twitter.


Anshul Kumar Pandey said...

I am more interested in knowing what these otherwise eloquent lawyers in the Lok and the Rajya Sabha were doing when Sec 66A was being passed. Do I sniff a conspiracy?

Vincent said...

You used to be funny and very articulate. What happened?