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Right to offend

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Governance

The point of free speech is to cause offence. If nobody is offended by anything that somebody says or writes, then there is no need for a constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression. The reason such a guarantee exists is to protect those who say things that provoke or offend. Do not protect those who cause offence and you might as well kiss the right to free speech goodbye.

In a liberal society, books should be banned or proscribed only in the most extreme cases. If a book betrays national security secrets, or if it is defamatory, then there may be an argument for banning it. Perhaps a certain kind of obscenity (paedophilia, for instance) is also reason enough to justify banning a book. Otherwise, there is no case at all for any kind of ban.

In India, unlike in most Western liberal societies, we sometimes make up a new reason for banning books: we say that they offend communities.

There are enough examples in recent history to demonstrate the West’s commitment to free speech. Though Salman Rushdie had to go into hiding after the fatwa, Western countries refused to ban The Satanic Verses. Despite protests from many Muslim countries, Denmark protected (rather than penalised) the cartoonist who drew the offensive caricatures of the Prophet. No Western country has banned those cartoons.

Unfortunately, we have no such commitment to free speech. We brag about it as a constitutional right and yet, every time it comes to the crunch, we chicken out and give in to the book banners and the movie censors. We were the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses. Each time some community complains about a movie, our politicians rush to ban it. This can verge on the ridiculous.

For the full text of the column by Vir Sabghvi in the New Indian Express, click here

The author has made a very interesting point. And, while he has talked largely about books, it should apply equally to other forms of mass communication too.

Now, Yahoo/Google-groups have now become the accepted norms for communication within communities. However, when controversial matters are brought up for debate there, very often members tend to take up a 'holier than thou' approach, followed by suggestions that such debates should be curbed since they could affect the sensibilities of the members.

Well, these forums are not meant for exchange of greetings and pleasantries alone, and as long as basic courtesies are being observed, there should be no shying away from debates on the excuse that it could offend the sensibilities of a few.

Muralidhar Rao

 

Comments

murali772's picture

causing offense - not acceptable

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Comment by a Y-group member, to which I had forwarded a link to the blog:

No one has a God-given right to be offended. One is offended when something is said that is both nasty and untrue. More importantly "truth" is something that must be obvious to all and not simply a matter of belief. In fact, most of the time, not many are really offended by what is said or published. Its just politicians who blow it out of proportion and take a stupid mob along with them. But to say that the point of free speech is to "cause" offence is quite absurd. If something is truely offensive, it should be put down firmly.

It was generally in the context of the discussions here, that I had published this blog, which I thought brought a new insight into the debate.

Well, if the admin feels this will deviate too far away from what we want discussed on PRAJA, it can be terminated.

Muralidhar Rao

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