Can We Afford Absolute Freedom of Expression?

Sep 14th, 2012 | By | Category: Affairs, Uncategorized

Recently, we witnessed two incidents in quick succession – one at home and one in Libya.  The one at home involved the arrest, on sedition charges, of a young cartoonist who chose to denigrate national symbols like the Constitution, the National Emblem and the Parliament in his cartoons that were supposed to be against corruption.  While the sedition charge was opposed by most people as unwarranted and excessive, a lot of them also expressed anguish about the manner in which the national symbols were represented in the cartoons.  Many also wondered if the cartoonist would have dared to show such irreverence towards any religious symbols!

The other incident involved the death of the US Ambassador, in an attack against the US Embassy in Libya by Muslim groups enraged by an amateur film that apparently insulted Islam and Prophet Muhammad.  The violent protests are now spreading to different parts of the world and will end only in more misery and death to innocents.

While violence and killings to avenge the so called “hurt feelings” need to be condemned in the strongest possible manner, can we spare the deliberate attempts to hurt feelings of various groups, for narrow objectives like earning money or fame?  In other words, can we afford absolute freedom of artistic expression?

U.S. Secretary of State Ms Hillary Clinton described the film in question as “disgusting” and “reprehensible” and that “it appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage.

US Embassy in Cairo said in their Press Release on September 11, 2012: “The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims — as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions … Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

On the other hand, there are people who support the unfettered freedom for artists. To quote Ms Taslima Nasreen, the Bangladeshi writer who had to leave her country in the face of attacks from religious groups, from an interview published in the Times of India, “I believe in absolute freedom of expression. Everyone has a right to offend and be offended.

Who is right and who is wrong? Are all parties wrong or right? My heart says artists must have the full freedom to express their creativity, thoughts and ideas. I would not feel offended merely because someone has used his/her artistic freedom in some form or the other.  But my mind says that no freedom can be absolute; one’s freedom must stop just before the nose of another and should not include the freedom to touch the nose itself!  Absolute freedom amounts to anarchy, and therefore is not advisable for any society that believes in  the rule of law and aspires for harmony.

According to the Indian Constitution, no freedom is absolute. The Constitution itself makes fundamental rights enshrined therein, including right to life, subject to reasonable restrictions.  Therefore, when we talk about the “absolute freedom of expression”, it has no sanction under the Indian Constitution.

However, the Constitution does not solve our problem. What amounts to reasonable restriction is something subjective. At the most, it will help if a matter reaches the court and the court has to decide upon it.  However, these issues are not decided in courts, but often on the streets. Just like artists, there are elements in the society who think they too have the freedom of expression; only their mode of expression is violence and not arts.

When Ms Nasreen says, “everyone has right to offend“, isn’t she, inadvertently but ironically supporting the so called right to freedom of expression of her tormentors as well? When she was being harassed by these fanatics, weren’t they expressing their freedom of expression in the manner known to them?

Similarly, what if an artist or writer deliberately offends a group or community with the intention of either creating social tensions or merely to gain publicity for his/her works?  What if a radical group wanting to create riots, uses one of the artists to publish some matter that can inflame any of the other groups? Can we allow such things to happen?

To think of the other side of the coin, it is often seen that the misuse of freedom to create social tension is done not by artists but by communalists. They will do it on some or other pretext, even if artists keep their silence. Also, the issue remains as to who decides what is offensive and deliberately made to market one’s works? Should it be done by the communalists or journalists who have never evaluated a work of art, or by art critics?

Obviously, these are not black and white issues.  There are no clear answers to all these questions.  That is why we need to find a mid path.

While respecting the artistic freedom of expression, the artists have to ensure that the freedom is not misused in a way that it results in creating social tensions. At the same time if a third party, whether it is moral police, government authorities, censorship bodies or even art critics are given the power to censor the art works that can stifle the genuine freedom of the artist.  We witnessed the indiscriminate blocking of many sites when Govt of India decided to take action against social media accounts spreading rumours that led to ‘exodus’ of  North Eastern Indians from many parts of the country.  The bureaucrats couldn’t even make out what was spreading venom and what was fighting that venom!

No one can deny the fact that there are thousands and thousands of artistic expressions in all forms of arts that do not hurt any sentiments, yet manage to be great works.   There are also certain artistic works that by their very nature and subject might cause some hurt to some people, not because of the work as such, but because these people are unduly possessive or sentimental about the subject itself.

It is not the above mentioned works, but the third group of works where an artist causes hurt to the sentiments of a large section of normal population, whether deliberately or otherwise, that concerns us.  When I say normal population, I mean any population of rational beings excluding the fundamentalist or extremist elements.

Unfettered and absolute freedom

Proponents of this view do not believe in any kind of restrictions, self imposed or otherwise, on the freedom of artists.  They believe that artists should have complete freedom for expressing themselves in the artistic way they want to and should not be subjected to any form of restrictions.  If someone is offended by a work of art s/he should have the freedom not to see/read/hear that work.  This view corresponds to the view expressed by Ms Nasreen.

As per this view, if a person or a group is of the opinion that an artist is deliberately maligning their religion or culture they have the freedom to protest in a peaceful manner.  At the same time the Government has a duty to protect the artists’ freedom and the freedom of others to protest peacefully. But the Government or the Courts should never stop an artist from expressing himself as the aggrieved parties always have the choice not to see/read/listen to the work.

I do not agree with the practicality of this view.  For example, if a university chooses offensive portions to be included in its syllabus, would it be possible to tell the students that if they are offended by the work they don’t have to study it?  Taking the artistic freedom little further, is it fine for an artist to deliberately carry out character assassination of a person by including a distorted version of the family history of that person in some artistic work? Wouldn’t the affected person have a right to sue the artist for defamation and wouldn’t it be proper for the State/Courts to punish the artist, if it is proved that the work amounted to defamation as per the laws of the land? Or, should the Court merely tell that affected person to restrain from reading the artistic work containing defamatory matter?

Violence is not limited to physical form alone; even psychological and emotional violence is equally deplorable.  No matter what the mode of expression, every form of violence is to be condemned and stopped.  That includes a violent artistic work as well.

Further, this view pre-supposes a superior right to artists to express themselves, in whatever form and fashion they choose, while imposing a burden on all others to be apologetic about their sentiments and to be choosy about what they read, listen, view etc.  Artists can violate others sentiments through their work, but the affected people have to resort only to courts and peaceful protests to register their hurt feelings.  In the real world, this kind of a classification of rights may not be feasible or practical.

Artists have to be aware that for a State maintaining social harmony is more important than allowing individual creative freedom.  Therefore, given the choice a State is likely to stifle freedom than allow anarchy by allowing every group to exercise their respective ‘absolute freedoms’. The concept of society and nation-states are based on giving up certain individual freedoms for the common good.

Absolute control over the Freedom

The other end of the spectrum demands absolute control on an artist’s freedom of expression.  This is the view of the ‘offended’.  As per this view, there is a thin line between freedom and hurting someone’s feelings. Freedom of expression cannot intrude others’ sentiments. If an artist portrays someone in a way which may be hurting and indecent, to quote freedom of expression as an excuse would be arbitrary and unjustified.

Problem with this view is that who will decide where the thin line that separates freedom and hurt is?  Sentiments differ from person to person.  Can an artist realistically determine what the line is where he can be sure of not hurting anybody’s feelings?

Let us turn the argument on its head.  As much as there could be an artist who is deliberately out to destroy social harmony, isn’t there a possibility of some motivated individuals, wanting to instigate a large groups of people to indulge in violence,  accusing an artistic work of hurting their sentiments (real or imaginary)?  In fact, it is the so called ‘offended people’ who often resort to violence without even trying to find out the truth behind the allegations about offending their sentiments!  Most of the violence that occurred in the past against artistic works was precisely due to misguided reactions, at the behest of trouble makers and without actual reading, viewing or listening, as the case may be.

Case for Self Restraint

Between the two extreme views above, we have to find a mid path which has a balance of convenience, even if not ideal, so that we can ensure maximum social harmony with minimum interference in artistic freedom.  It is towards this end that I suggest self-restraint as the method, wherein the artist himself acts as any prudent artist would act in a given situation. I am sure there are thousands of ways to express one’s creativity and ideas without hurting other rational people’s sentiments.

The concept of “swatantrata” is found in Indian culture from ancient times. “Swa” means self;  ‘Tantra” means method, discipline, or rules. So, Swatantrata means acting according to our own methods or rules, which is the ideal type of  ‘freedom’.  In other words, freedom is not absolute but subject to self discipline and self regulation.

This is not limited to artists alone. In fact, this principle of self regulation applies to all the members of a society. I agree that each one of us have an absolute right to hold a view, opinion or belief, howsoever extreme it may be. But we do not have such an absolute right to manifest that view in public, without considering its impact on other members of the society. That restraint is the little cost that we have to pay for enjoying the membership and associated benefits of a society.

Self restraint is the best form of control, as it gives the artist sufficient opportunity to express his ideas or art in a way that the essence of his work is not compromised and yet the reasonable sensitivities of the other members of the society are taken care of.

(Image courtesy : riesp and bigevil600 from sxc.hu )


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Jayasankar is a Lawyer by education and is currently working as a Director in one of the Corporate Finance advisory companies, heading the Legal and Compliance functions. A product of Indian Air Force, he has done his LLB from the Panjab University, Chandigarh, Masters in Business Law from NLSIU, Bangalore and Masters in Business Administration (HR) from IGNOU. He is an avid reader and a keen observer of current affairs and politics. He blogs at Thoughts and tweets @jay_ambadi.

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  1. A very good reporting. It is a sample of an excellent journalism, if somebody wants to know it.

  2. If the offended person or group uses or follows the same mode of expression, a tit for tat in a democratic way, what will be the scenario? Will the first person dare to repeat and fire another salvo, knowing that an equal measure will be exercised by the opponent? It is quite possible that the first person will be discouraged to make another attempt against the opponent.

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