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Has The Freedom Of Expression Been Seized Between Ideologies?

Posted: October 6, 2020
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The modern equation between democracy and freedom of expression is a complicated one. Is this freedom intrinsic to democracy? To what extent? Read further to find out.

Activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan was fined Re 1 by the supreme court for tweeting against Indian judiciary. Recently, Bloomsbury India publishing house withdrew a book titled, Delhi’s Riots before its release, due to pressure from some of its leading authors.

This tendency to hush the free space for public debates is termed as ‘Cancel Culture’.  It means, attempting to cancel someone’s oral or written expression which is contrary to the views of the establishment.

In the contemporary Indian context, we often hear that there is no freedom of expression for writers and thinkers. This view is apparently true as we have seen a number of activists being jailed on charges of sedition in recent past.

Historically tracing the freedom of expression

In this context, it is important to revisit the history of freedom of expression. In the memoirs of world history, the Greek philosopher Socrates was the most prominent and the earliest victims of criticism about his freedom of expression. He was accused of misleading the youth by triggering their thinking and thereby questioning the system. As a result, he was given a choice of either stop expressing his mind or consume poison as a punishment. Socrates didn’t think twice before accepting the punishment as he devoted his life for freedom of expression.

Since then, we trace many such occurrences in human history, thereby, state punishing its citizens for expressing their views. In the early evolution years of science, many scientists were punished for debunking religious beliefs through their inventions. Sadly, we haven’t widened our horizon of tolerance for diverse views till date, in spite of accepting it as a fundamental human right in modern society.

State and the freedom of expression 

Quite significantly, freedom of expression is closely linked to the state power. For example, when there is a left leaning government at the helm of affairs, its ideology is flavoured. Similarly, the right-wing government encourages its ideology only. In this context, the notion of freedom of expression itself is debatable. As there is no space for common ground, when ideologues are busy fighting for their views to be heard, but not willing to heed to the contrary views.

At this point, it is important to note what Mr. Raghuram Rajan, the former governor of RBI said about free speech, ‘if we don’t confront diverse ideas, we will remain a stagnant water.’

Here, the fundamental error in our understanding is to synchronize the person and the ideas. Then, we tend to believe that if a person is silenced, his ideas will be destroyed naturally. In contrast, the silenced ideas reach the masses widely over a period of time. Because, people become more curious to know, why was it subdued? For instance, Socrates’ ideas became more popular through Plato and Aristotle after his state sponsored death.

Why all ideas must be deliberated 

In this regard, we must confront ideas rationally in public debates, not the individuals who have expressed them. Irrespective of time and space, intolerance has been prevalent all over the world.

Regrettably, we, the civilized lots haven’t developed maturity to discuss conflicting ideas openly yet. As a result, we get provoked easily to any criticism of what we identify with. In these current times of social media, the increasing trolling and bullying of individuals has forced many to delete their views or quit the platforms.

Furthermore, we often see people getting physically attacked, lose their jobs, or even being shot for daring to express their views.

Debates in different democracies 

Recently, the concept of cancel culture has been brought to public debate in the US, when Steven Pinker, a renowned linguist and professor at Harvard University, was criticized for his old tweets. In this present context of ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests, Pinker’s tweets which said, ‘the police brutalities on black people were not racial attacks, but rather a result of economic inequality in society’, triggered wide public outrage.  

In response, nearly 550 academics and linguists petitioned the Linguistic Society of America to remove Pinker’s name from the list of ‘the most distinguished linguists’. Unperturbed by such moves of his critics, Pinker wrote an open letter in Harper’s Magazine with the signatures of 153 prominent liberal writers including Noam Chomsky and JK Rowling that, ‘there is a suffocating atmosphere of intolerance in the US now’.

In Indian context, freedom of expression has been swaying left and right in accordance with the power. However, in comparison with the west, there is hardly any space for freedom of expression for government employees, especially teachers and also for writers. They are always under surveillance. When we claim that institutions of higher education are centers of knowledge and academics, the opinion makers, we have to do a lot of soul searching still for their freedom to express.

Why the freedom of expression is central to a democracy

Finally, though it would appear a utopian state, but still, power and freedom of expression should be disentangled in a civilized and a true democratic state. Even if, the expressed view is publicly detrimental, there can still be a healthy discussion. Thus, one can’t just proclaim that there is no freedom of expression for him and remain intolerant to contrary viewpoints.

Image credit- StevePB

Dr. Jyothi, Assistant Professor, Department of English, University College of Science, Tumkur University. Has been

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