February 22, 2006

Limits to Freedom of Expression?

I believe that freedom of speech is essential to the basic nature of human beings. A desire for free expression is an innate impulse. Not many will dispute that (I hope!).

Dispute ensues when a society attempts a systematic indulgence of this innate impulse. For, it then is necessary to prescribe limits. The word "limit" is misleading. Our consciousness is shaped by a million historical instances of coercive limits to innate human impulses and that plays tricks with our concepts too. Hence different people view different extents of limits as justifiable.

On the other hand, there is only one logical limit that must be placed on this or any other basic human freedom: exercising my freedom should not impede you from exercising your freedom. Indeed, by definition I am not free to restrict your freedom. (It is another matter that such clarity of thought or language is rare today.)

I am not implying that said limits are easy to prescribe. Far from it.

What I am implying is that debate must happen within the framework of the above mentioned logical constraint. Moreover, because no group of people, however major, can properly claim to represent a common psyche the endeavor should be for a minimalist approach confined to bare bones.

As this article in the Economist points out:

...the fewer constraints that are placed on free speech the better. Limits designed to protect people (from libel and murder, for example) are easier to justify than those that aim in some way to control thinking (such as laws on blasphemy, obscenity and Holocaust-denial) .

Exactly. The purpose of limits is to protect. Not to fashion thinking.

Newspapers are free to publish cartoons of the Prophet. M F Hussain is free to paint Hindu gods or Bharat Mata nude. David Irving is free to say that holocaust did not happen.

Muslims are free to resent cartoons of the Prophet. Hindus or Indians are free to disapprove of Hussain's paintings. Western European governments are free to ridicule Irving.

Muslims are not free to burn Danish embassies. Hindus or Indians are not free to ransack Hussain's home. Austria is not free to imprison Irving.

But two of the above three did happen. And they happened not just in the illiberal melting pots of the world, but also on a leading stage of the era of enlightenment which led to liberalism.

Question arises: who is to take up the mantle of safeguarding truth or morality or piety?

History shouts the answer: No one.


At 6:17 PM, February 22, 2006, Blogger Harry said...

Isn't it everyone's job to safeguard free expression? Shouldn't we agree that true free expression is more important than bruised feelings? And then stand up for that belief?

At 6:19 PM, February 22, 2006, Blogger Krishna said...

Harry, thanks for your response. Agree with you totally. It is everyone's job to safeguard free expression.

I wrote in my post that it is no one's job to safeguard morality/truth/piety etc. These must be left to individuals and their non-violent ways.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Subscribe to
Posts [Atom]