Ran Chakrabarti imagines a dispute over freedom of speech of a slightly different sort.
Free speech is under attack. Nowhere more so than in India, where draconian laws permit arrests and criminal charges against those who hurt the sentiments of others.
Under Section 66A of India’s Information Technology Act, any person who disseminates information that is grossly offensive or spreads information for the purpose of causing annoyance or inconvenience, can be fined and imprisoned for up to three years. Several people have been arrested in recent months for nothing more than annoying or offensive communication, often at the instigation of the political classes. Back in November 2012, two young ladies were arrested and charged in Mumbai for posting and “liking” a comment on Facebook that questioned why the whole city should shut down in mourning over the death and funeral of a local politician and patriarch.
Yes, it is hard to believe. It is very hard to believe.
But while we’re on the subject of “very hard to believe,” let me spin you a story that is pure fiction, or in other words, not actually true. Perhaps, in telling the story, we may begin to see the irony between free speech and those who oppose it, and the irrationality of charging individuals with “annoying” or “offensive” interchange.
Let’s call it the allegory of the sentimentally hurt liberals. It goes a bit like this.
The Allegory of the Sentimentally Hurt Liberals
“Christopher Hitchens wasn’t really a great man,” said the religious fundamentalist. “People like him are born every day,” he continued. “Why should the whole city shut down to pay homage to him because he has just died?”
“He was an atheist and did no good in his lifetime, simply questioning other people and their beliefs,” he tweeted.
“He incited nobody to violence and he didn’t advocate the destruction of property if you didn’t agree with him, or his army of intimidating intellectuals,” he concluded. “How could he be great?”
Within hours of his comments on Facebook, the religious fundamentalist’s post went viral. Intellectuals everywhere just couldn’t tolerate the slur. Enough was enough. How dare anyone insult rational thought, they all fumed, and, more importantly, a god within its pantheon? This is just unacceptable, they all cried, as they threw down their books.
It wasn’t long before the complaints were filed. The religious fundamentalist started receiving hate mail from all over the world. How dare you insult our adherence to logic? How dare you insult a pillar of western liberal thought? Apologize for hurting our feelings! Apologize for mocking our sentiments!
Things were getting out of hand. Large crowds of intellectuals, many wearing mortarboards and university gowns congregated outside the religious fundamentalist’s house.
“Death to those that insult Hitchens!” they chanted. “Down with all those who question reason!” they continued.
Images of the religious fundamentalist were burned and stamped on for good measure. It all made for great visuals on the global networks.
But things got out of hand. Stones were thrown. The liberals, in a frenzy of rational thought, scaled the walls of the garden, stormed the house and ransacked its contents as the religious fundamentalist fled in fear of his life.
But he didn’t get far. The police caught him. He pleaded with them for help to stop the criminal damages and the threats to his life. But the police didn’t listen. In fact, they arrested him. They arrested him for hurting the sentiments of a religious group, and for inciting violence in the first place by sending annoying messages.
Charges were pressed and the religious fundamentalist ironically decided to resort to reason to rebut the allegations.
“Liberalism, rationalism, and logic are not dogmatic religions,” he cleverly argued. “You have no gods to insult, no rituals to parody, no prejudices to maintain. In fact, you progress through critical thought and the questioning of your theories about the world,” he countered.
Sure enough, even counsel for the liberals and the rationalists couldn’t counter the defense.
Rationalism, indeed, was not a religion. The religious fundamentalist was right, they admitted with gritted teeth: liberal thought progressed through its own internal self-critiques. How could the rationalists have been so stupid to charge him with this in the first place?
But there’s still the charge of incitement to violence, they cleverly thought. He won’t get away with that. If he hadn’t said what he had said, we, as a collective group of rational and logical beings, would never have been so outraged as to ransack his house and chase him out and threaten his life in the first place, they contended.
Inevitably, the liberals nailed him.
“But what did I say to offend them?” asked the religious fundamentalist. “How could any human being be motivated to damage property or physically intimidate others over mere words, let alone a group of people who think logically all the time?”
“What would the man on the Clapham omnibus have done in the same circumstances?” he pleaded.
“But this is not the Clapham omnibus,” countered the rationalists. “This is the man on the intellectual omnibus and, to adopt the eggshell rule, you take your victim to be as sensitive as you find him.”
“We all know that intellectuals are far more sensitive than normal people, and you should have known that before you made your insensitive comments.”
It was no surprise that the judge agreed with the rationalist argument and convicted the religious fundamentalist on the charge of inciting violence. The sentence was harsh: an undergraduate degree in the natural sciences at Harvard, followed by a MA in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford.
Let this be a lesson to him, or anyone else for that matter, who may dare question the principals of rationalism and any of its demi-gods who advance the ideas of free thought. Let this be a lesson to anyone who dares to publish messages that may offend, cause inconvenience or annoy.
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