Last year, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I wrote a blog post on how we should be skeptical about absolute freedom of speech; that there are boundaries individuals should not cross even if their actions don’t  lead directly and evidently to violence. I reasoned that like the failure of economic markets; markets for ideas can fail, too: if a player in a market has too much power – a buyer or seller in an economic market, or the majority social and political group in a polity in the market place of ideas, the market would settle in a bad equilibrium. The market would fail, and harm people. In the Charlie Hebdo case, I was one of the “buts” because I thought that if a certain group has more power than another to set the narrative, the latter group becomes severely disadvantaged. In France, the white population, Christians, atheists, secularists belonging to the former and the mostly islamic, non-whites, belong to the latter. So there should be some form of regulation, I argued, not from the government, but from oneself; if one belongs to the majority group, decency behooves that one should exercise restraint.

I held on to this opinion until the sedition incident in JNU happened. But this was different, a group that was challenging power and authority, a group that did not have power in the central government, were the ones exercising their voice fiercely. I didn’t agree with most things that Kanhaiya Kumar and his group said, but surely, he had the right to say it; to challenge authority; and put forth his own narrative and theory of the Indian state. The case itself is complicated and sub judice but the smartest political commentators agree that what was said didn’t amount to sedition; that there wasn’t a direct and evident link to violence even though the slogans were offensive. I suddenly found myself defending absolute freedom of speech amongst my friends and colleagues.

There were a few other like me, too: those who condemned the violence in France but thought that Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t have drawn those cartoons that it did, and those who condemned the police crackdown on free speech in JNU. Were we hypocrites, as some accused us to be? I would like to think that I was not being hypocritical, the contexts under which my opinions were made were different. I began to investigate why I thought the cases were vastly different.

In the first case, it was the ‘majority’ that were exercising absolute freedom of speech; it was a more ‘powerful’ group, but in the latter, it was the ‘minority’ which was exercising their freedoms absolutely to challenge the mainstream. The concept of “equality” warranted different responses to the groups. Where on the one hand, arguably, the distance between the more powerful group and the less powerful group was being widened (France), in the JNU case the distance was being made to reduce.

A friend brought up considerations of social order in the context of free speech. He opined that there is a trade-off between order and liberty. I demurred when he told me this, I reasoned that if individuals didn’t take offense themselves to what was being said about their group; if individuals didn’t react violently to something that was said against them but instead responded again in speech (big assumption here: where the opportunity and space exist), then the exercise of your right itself would lead to order. If the element that caused disorder by individuals and groups was eliminated by the individuals and groups themselves and instead responded under the constraints of free speech itself then equilibrium would be reached.

I can immediately see that there is a contradiction here which  I haven’t resolved for myself: is the value of ‘not taking offense’ plus ‘assuming that the opportunity and space to say what you want to say and to be heard with patience exists’ trump the ‘value of decency and restraint’? Theoretically, as a liberal I would chose the former: I would argue that as individuals we should all imbibe the quality of not taking ourselves too seriously; of not taking offensive. This is a necessary condition for the development of individuals, and this condition might translate into achieving the propitious context under which absolute free speech will be happily exercised. I would argue, normatively, that it is healthy for individuals to be cautious of groups or to be suspicious of the ‘collective’. In the long run, I support this view wholeheartedly, but there are always immediate ‘practical’ considerations.

I suppose this is why Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote this piece where he critiqued the liberal and conservative response to the Charlie Hebdo incident; fleshing out all the contradictions without resolving it.





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