Saturday, April 11, 2009

Unoffensive Free Speech Is An Oxymoron

The most ridiculous aspect of the mindless Benazir's lap/PPP jiyalas/Shanaakth controversy has been the the bizarre insistence that speech can only be free if it is acceptable and non-offensive to all. Here, for instance, is Waqar Mehdi -- spokesman for the Chief Minister for Sindh -- on what he thinks of free speech:
Anything that is religiously or politically controversial should not be displayed. It should be acceptable to all. Even if offensive pictures of Altaf Hussain or Nawaz Sharif were displayed, we would oppose it. Our party believes in freedom of expression, but that does not mean it should be a free-for-all. People’s feelings should not be hurt.

Read those last two sentences again: "our party believes in freedom of expression, but...people's feelings should not be hurt". Think for a moment how ridiculous that statement is.

The simple point -- so simple, in fact, that I feel really stupid making it -- is that there is the potential for someone to find something offensive about everything. Some people find Bollywood films offensive (too much booty shaking). Some people find Tom and Jerry cartoons offensive (too violent). Some people find nude paintings offensive (too erotic), and some people find right wing commentary offensive (too stupid). Consequently, society -- from a purely utilitarian and mass-welfare point of view -- can do one of two things:

1. Analyze every word published, every photograph printed, every film screened, every painting displayed, every item of clothing sewn, and every speech given for content, tone, medium, and decency. After this analysis, a committee should discern who amongst the society is likely to be offended and who not by these creations. Once this analysis is complete, the committee should pass its recommendations to another committee to analyze whether the people who are offended are important for society's well-being. Once this analysis is done, a committee can pass its recommendations on to the government on whether or not the creation should be allowed to stand.

Of course at no point in this entire process are the ideological, religious, ethnic and gender affiliations of the various committees supposed to come into play. Furthermore, at no point is there a danger that the committee can be bribed or otherwise influenced to allow certain creations and disallow others. The entire process will be fair, balanced and transparent.

2. Allow people to write, publish, say, paint, and film whatever the fuck they want. Those who are offended by one or the other item can look the other way, change the channel, put the book down, leave the art gallery or the cinema, and stop making such a fucking nuisance of themselves.

Personally, I vote for number two, but I don't know about you guys.

Let's step back for a second and think about the relationship between principle and policy.

At its most efficient and smooth-running, a society's collective principles are perfectly aligned with the society's laws. But sometimes, by virute of having contradictory principles, that cannot be true.

Consider incest. Many Western societies are loathe to govern their citizens' sex lives. This reluctance to legislate bedroom activity is born of the principle: what people do behind closed doors is no one's business but theirs. If this principle was carried to the extreme, then incest would be legal. And yet it is not. Why is this? Because many Western societies think that sexual relations between blood relatives is morally abhorrent and biologically damaging. So the principle of sexual freedom meets the principle of moral questionability, and they meet halfway, and the result is that incest is banned.

Note that the principle of sexual freedom is not met in its totality, even if the result is what most people prefer.

So, to be wholly simplistic about the entire enterprise, there are two types of principles that are imbued in a society's laws: those that have no real wiggle room ("you cannot kill someone unprovoked") and those that do ("what you do in the bedroom is no one's business"). The natural question, then, arises: which of these two camps does -- or should -- the idea of freedom of express reside in?

Let us take each possibility in turn. Let us imagine first that freedom of expression and speech is intrinsically and inherently negotiable, malleable, and fluid. That there is always a "but..." or "however..." attached to it. What would a world with such a principle look like?

For one thing, there would be fewer people offended. If every creative venture had to be pre-approved by all segments of society -- across class, ethnic, racial, ideological, age, gender and party lines -- then it stands to reason that only things approved by all would make it through the filter, and thus there would be no reason for anyone to object to anything created in that society. Forgetting the impracticalities of such a world, imagine if you would like to live in such a world, even if it was possible. Where no conventional wisdom would be challenged, nothing controversial said or done, uniformity of thought and speech encouraged.

In the alternate world, we would have the opposite problem. Because there would be so much offending material in the air -- from music videos to fascist pamphlets, from erotic art to pornography -- that there would exist a constant stream of outrage. It would be harder to get along. Faultlines would be drawn, and made more salient.

Are these images caricatures? Yes, to be sure. And yet, there is an important point contained with them, and that is the fact that freedom of expression, more than most concepts, is especially vulnerable to slippery-slope arguments. If we deny someone the right to say or write something without an attendant threat of violence, then it cannot be fair for others to escape censure (and the censor) for what they write. Why should some people's red lines, after all, be more red than others? As I said earlier, if I find Zaid Hamid's crazy conspiracy theorizing and hate-filled shit offensive, then why can't I legitimately ask the government to step in, or step in myself? Why can't I hire a bunch of goons with guns to go and ransack the offices of TV One? Why does the PPP get to have its way with what is said, and not me?

This, my friends, is the fundamental problem with censorship: people other than you getting to decide for you what you find acceptable. Some government bureaucrat, or some merry band of PPP/JI/MQM jiyalas, or some set of nameless and faceless people making your preferences for you. It is at root and at its very core an unfair proposition.

Which is why it is unsurprising that the PPP's support for it is wholehearted. After all, "fairness" is not the term that comes to mind when we are treated to the strange spectacle of a political party lodging an FIR against the victim of the hooliganism of last week. This is the legal equivalent of a rapist suing his victim -- after raping her -- for wearing something too revealing, while the rape victim profusely apologizes. It is the complete and absolute antithesis of fairness and justice.

I know there are more "important" issues that plague Pakistan today -- a near unwinnable war as currently fought, and a collapsing economy chief among them -- but that does not mean the little things don't count. Moreover, it would be easy for the ruling party of this country to actually score some points here (unlike with the war and the economy, where there are no good options), and get some credit for doing the right thing.

They know exactly who these goons were. Bring them to justice for their crimes, and everybody (well, almost everybody) gives them a deserved round of applause.

Why am I not holding my breath?


Chris Hayes said...

So where would the Danish cartoons of the Prophet stand in all this? Certainly insulting religious figures in the West is acceptable. But clearly not in other countries were the cartoons weren't originally published.
A quick search of the net reveals they were mostly awful and have inspired a lot more insulting ones. Indeed a tour of the net reveals endless insults directed at Muslims and the prophet.
Does freedom of speech extend to insulting others or those they revere?

supe said...

i think it's kind of naive to believe in the existence of freedom of speech. it certainly doesn't exist in pakistan or even england for that matter. it's only fair to keep within certain limits and not offend one another.

Chris Hayes said...

You have to go to speakers corner for true freedom of speech in England (though what are the odds the cops are videoing it!).

Chris Hayes said...

I tell a lie you have to go to Spreeksteen in Amsterdam as you can still get arrested in Hyde Park, though it seems no one ever is.

Dawn Patrol said...

I still agree with the original post that we get very sensitive very fast on the sub-continent. particularly about insulting religion or religious leaders, who personally I think should be insulted. There's a political party that specialised in this, too.

karachi khatmal said...

most people loved their college years.

they sometimes try to re-live it, by getting stupid drunk, or staying up late, or not going to work, or something like that.

at fiverupees, the guys relive their college years by writing academic papers on what masquerades as a blog. i've learnt more about game theory here than during any course i ever took. and now there is this detailed post.

not saying the content isn't great, but its funny - its a blog man, you don't have to include citations or footnotes...

*then i realise the 5 rupee guys are mostly lawyers. oh...*

Ahsan said...


Hahahaha. Fair comment, except I'm not a lawyer (thank god). AKS and NB are though.

And there are no footnotes or citations in this post. I think.

Jadev,India said...

Awesome post! I think the most compelling reason for people with street strength who engage in barring freedom of expression is insecurity. Since in developing countries most people are uneducated and unsophisticated in their thinking..the mob fears that the people being susceptible may fall for that particular expression.

So the cure is quality education which promotes open-no-holds-bar debates in schools and colleges and thus increase the skill of articulation of people's views and polishing the rough edges in our point of view by imbibing/accepting relevant points raised by opponents. There was a debating science in India called tharka shastra(science of debate) and after opponent fails in his debate which can last for days,weeks to months..he should accept the winners point of view. This method was used by Adi Shankara to dismantle Buddhist,Jainia,Sankhya,Vaisheshika and other non-vedantic philosophies in India.

somethingrichandstrange said...

hmm, i don't think unoffensive is even a word. its inoffensive no?

Anonymous said...

What happened at that Arts fesival was an honor killing. The Bhutto's honor was quesioned and thus these EDUCATED people decided they could destroy what they did not like. This violence is no different than a woman who is killed for talking to another man where the justification is she tarnished the honor of the family. It is all nonsense and bullshit.

Pakistan lives in a world that is 500 years behind the modern world. This applies to the "elite educated" class as well as the village class.

NB said...

@ KK

I take umbrage at your sweeping generalisations about lawyers. I personally never cite anything on authority, know nothing about game theory and have never won any sort of argument.

I think a few FIRs are in order.

Anonymous said...

Unoffensive is a synonym of inoffensive. Both are adjectives but inoffensive is more generally used.

zeyd said...

I'm going with number one but would like a probe to be fitted in somewhere between the analysis, committee, committee, and government.

I like probes.

Anonymous said...

To me, the idea of personal freedom means leave me alone to decide what is good for me.Why should a group of people believe that they know what is in my interests and in the larger interests of society? Why can't we refuse to kowtow to the diktats of these bunch of people who tries to patronize us and give them a strong message that mind your own business, while we mind ours.

naqiya said...


destroying things in a private space, using aggression and beating people = minding your own business? interesting

Ahsan said...


I may be wrong here, but I don't think that was what Anon337 meant. I think his/her comment was directed at the PPP goons, if I'm not mistaken.

Anonymous said...

before anything, i'm a staunch believer and applicant of free speech. but truly some things are just meant to manipulate, abuse and provoke. just like non-muslims pick the Holy Prophet of all Islamic historic figures to try their version of "free speech" on, this painting was done to incite and provoke. immature, childish and stupid it demanded a reaction. not a violent one as it got but ... sigh. Lord help us mature soon so we can understand and see the true issues facing us.