Vantage point

Monday, May 21, 2007

Relativism in Freedom

I love Spiderman. And I love freedom. Which is why I get bugged when people mangle the comic books' most famous quote to come up with an aphorism they think is axiomatic - "with freedom come responsibilities".

No! Please! Stop! Shut up!

Giving in to this hyphenation of freedom and responsibilities is the first step towards the erosion of freedoms. These people should realise there is a difference between "responsibility" and "discretion". Sure, it is wise to exercise discretion while we express ourselves. But that does not mean we have some kind of responsibility. Responsibility implies an obligation. And a freedom saddles with an obligation is not freedom. It is not a right. It is a privilege. And the very idea of free speech being a privilege instead of a right sickens me.

We live in a world where free speech is often under attack, legally or through mob violence. In such times, when there is an attack on free speech by people who are "offended", you would usually expect right-minded individuals to condone this attack and speak up for free speechh. And it happens. But then, depending on ideological bent, we also have apologists. The "But-ers".

These but-ers will say, "Yes, this attack on free speech is despicable. I oppose violence. I support free speech. BUT...!!!" and following the BUT is a very dangerous slippery slope - an argument which basically says, "with freedom comes responsibility... blablabla". At least to me, and this may sound like an extreme analogy and it probably is, this is analogous to people who say, "It was sad that the woman was raped. The rapist should be punished harshly. But she should not have been walking home alone at night."

Now here's something funny. Two guys who are not exactly the best of friends. Two guys who are in opposite ideological camps. And two guys who, I daresay, never agree on anything. And yet when each one does the but-ing, on two separate occasion, they are making the same basic point. Hilarious. I know both will be offended I am comparing them to each other. So apologies to both. But notice the similarity in the import of the following.

Dilip D'souza, after the Danish cartoon controversy wrote -

A friend is a free-speech fundamentalist, and I mean that as a sincere compliment. With him, it's crystal clear: the right to free-speech trumps anything else. No buts. I admire the man for that clarity of thought. I wish I could say the same about myself.

Thing is, I can't. I believe in free speech, but I'm troubled by its implications.
You can say till you're blue in the face that the protesters are stuck in medieval times. You can also say till you're blue in the face that they do not understand the intellectual traditions that make Westerners -- some Westerners -- cherish that freedom above all.

The whole point is, these things matter not at all. The cartoons were offensive to people who believe the Prophet cannot be depicted, period. (Let alone caricatured). And those people reacted to that depiction, some with threats and actual violence.
In this place where the implications of free speech are troubling, that's where. Because if your freely expressed speech offends someone, that someone is going to react, and claiming freedom of speech will not switch that reaction off.

And so I think the lesson here is about consequences and responsibilities. You express yourself, whether via cartoon or protest, you had better be aware of the consequences. Free speech is a great power, but like all great powers, it comes with responsibilities. Protest is just as great a power, but it too comes with responsibilities.

Which means: I will defend a cartoonist's right to draw whatever the hell he wants to. But if he wants to draw something that will profoundly offend someone, I will tell him he should not do it.

Sandeep, wrote recently with regard to the Baroda art exhibition imbroglio

Freedom of expression (artistic or otherwise) can never be absolute. It comes with responsibility. You cannot claim freedom to insult a community’s deeply-held beliefs, symbolism, etc and then, yell murder when the community members protest. When you hold your freedom of expression as sacred, you should be willing to acknowledge, and respect others’ sacred space.
The extreme argument that freedom of expression is supreme denies basic human emotions. It is tyranny in another name: you don’t have a right to be offended because it goes against the principles of free expression. Lest you fire me for being undemocratic, anti-freedom, anti-whatever, I fully support people expressing themselves in whatever acceptable, creative, decent, proper and sedate form they see fit. But there’s a limit to that freedom. Responsibility, as I said earlier.

There’s no absolute right or freedom to cause absolute offence.

Yes, Dilip's post is genteel and measured, while Sandeep is shooting from the hip. Funnily enough though, they are both essentially saying the same thing - underlining the "BUT".

That's the thing about relativism in freedom. It gives debating fodder to those who are being apologists for intolerant attacks on free speech. No matter which ideological camp they are in, these caveat arguments are identical. Which is why whenever I hear words like "implications", "limits", "responsibilities", mentioned in the same line as "freedom", I cringe. Whether the writer is a supporter of hindutva like Sandeep, or critic of hindutva like Dilip, I cringe.

Because they don't realise how fast caveats to freedom can snowball and swallow them up.

So fellas, on behalf of freedom and on behalf of Ben Parker, please! Stop!