I have shared my views on absolute freedom of expression and artistic right to offend others, many times in the past. Like most other social issues, the confusion about the scope and extent of freedom of expression is not likely to end anytime soon. Therefore, I decided to revisit the subject, once again.
This post is prompted by two unfortunate incidences- first being the murderous terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo and the second being the reported decision to give up writing, by the Tamil writer Perumal Arumugan. First attack sought to silence the cartoonists who ‘offended’ certain elements of Islam, through physical elimination. Second is the result of attempts through intimidation and hounding, to silence the writer who ‘offended’ certain Hindu elements. First received near universal condemnation, across the world including India. The second incident did not receive much attention, even in India.
There are several issues that get highlighted by these two seemingly separate incidents. First is the selective outrage against attacks on freedom of expression. The same set of people who are eloquent on one incident goes into a deep silence on the other, and vice versa! That leaves any unbiased observer convinced that most people’s loyalties are towards their narrow identities, and not to the cause of genuine freedom of expression. If the loyalty is towards the freedom of expression, how can anyone condemn one attack and remain silent on another attack of the freedom?
Second issue is about how far the freedom of expression can include the freedom to offend. Being offended is a state of mind. No one can put an objective measure, to the state of being offended. Sometimes people are genuinely offended, other times they manufacture the sentiments for extraneous reasons like political mileage. That being the case, every exercise of the freedom of expression carries the risk of offending one or other group’s sentiments. Should we give up the freedom of expression, completely, to ensure that no one is offended? Should we uphold absolute freedom of expression and right to offend others?
Before I take the second issue further, let me state the third issue. When a person or group offends another person or a group, what should be the reaction? There is no doubt, freedom of expression is not limited to any one group or any one mode alone. Those who are offended also have the freedom of expression. Many a group chooses to express their freedom of expression through not so artistic means, but through resorting to different degrees of violence. The Islamic jihadi terrorists in Paris and the Hindu extremist elements in Tamil Nadu were also expressing their freedom, in their own preferred modes of expression! After all, not everyone can write a novel or draw a cartoon to express his or her feelings. It is much easier to threaten or indulge in violence and achieve the required results!
We cannot sacrifice the freedom of expression for the sake of satisfying those who are easily offended by such expressions. At the same time, we cannot leave people’s sentiments to the mercy of those who use the right to offend as a tool for various purposes, including commercial, political, and religious purposes. Similarly, no law abiding society can allow individuals or groups resorting to violence, no matter how much they are offended.
In a civilized society, no right can be absolute. When the right to life and right to freedom can be curtailed through judicial processes (capital punishment and imprisonment), how can we talk about any absolute and unfettered right to freedom of expression? Similarly, no matter how much one is offended by another, the former cannot take the law into his hands and do whatever he likes. In any society, the worst form of punishment that can be perceived, possibly, is an eye for an eye or life for a life. Taking or threatening to take a life for an artistic (offending) work or expression of an idea is beyond even the worst possible perspectives of law.
Freedom of expression is limited to the expression, alone. It cannot be extended to an absolute immunity from its legal consequences. If someone is offended by what has been said, he should have the right to seek a remedy under the laws. I cannot say my right to freedom of expression is affected when a court proceeds against me. I should be willing to be responsible and face the legal consequences of what I say or write. As members of a society, everyone is required to modulate one’s rights, freedoms, and feelings according to what is prescribed by the laws.
I believe, Constitution and the Penal Laws of India have sought to achieve a fine balance between the rights of those who are expressing their views and those who are likely to be offended by what is being expressed. One should have the freedom to express, subject to reasonable restrictions. One should also have the freedom to redress one’s grievances, when one is offended by another’s expression, but again subject to reasonable restrictions. The law should have the exclusive authority to arbitrate whether the grounds for being offended are genuine, and what punishment is adequate to redress the grievance. No matter how grave the offence, no one can be allowed to resort, to intimidation and violence. If one is offended by a work, he must have the right, only to approach a court and seek remedial actions under the existing laws. When a court pronounces a final order on the dispute, it should be binding on all parties, irrespective of the rights of freedoms involved.