Dharma Files | How many lives is freedom of expression worth?

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Two recent events are worth mentioning. First came the controversy surrounding the Hadith cited by Nupur Sharma, which exposed her to death threats. More sensationally, it led to some people losing their lives for merely expressing support for her online. Then, some days later, the sword of Damocles, hanging on the head of Salman Rushdie ever since the fatwa for his death issued by Ayatollah Khomeini provoked by the The Satanic Verses, came down on him, wounding him seriously. That this should have happened after an interval of thirty-three years, after the fatwa was issued, has shaken many. These events have brought the issue of freedom of expression to the fore both nationally and globally.

I offer some views on the matter as we grapple with this issue.

I would like to do so by going back to my trend of thoughts at the time the original fatwa against Salman Rushdie was issued. It certainly seemed excessive to me but I was more alarmed by the number of deaths the agitation against the book caused world-wide. They gave rise to a thought which would have been perhaps considered heretical in the liberal circles I moved in, had I voiced it. I began to wonder whether safeguarding such freedom of expression was worth sacrificing more than a dozen human lives? I have in mind here of course the lives lost in the agitation against the book, as it unfolded largely in the Third World.

I do not know what kind of calculus one could use to weigh the right to life with the right to freedom of expression, but it did offend my moral intuition that everyone seemed concerned about freedom of expression being compromised, but hardly anyone seemed concerned with the lives lost. It was as if the proponents of freedom of expression did not even perceive a conflict here between two rights — the right to life and the right to freedom of expression. Was this because the deaths were occurring in the Third World?

This led to another heretical thought which is best expressed in terms of the more recent idiom, that black lives did not seem to matter. To put it bluntly: was it right to sacrifice so many human lives so that the right of one individual’s freedom of expression could be preserved?

Obviously the ghost of colonialism haunts this remark. It need hardly be mentioned that lives of the colonials were considered expendable. Sir Winston Churchill even gave a good reason why this should be so — because they breed like rabbits. But I think we need to move beyond the colonial to a perhaps civilisational explanation, although the colonial might still be relevant. When we survey the history of Western civilisation, it becomes clear that the assertion of freedom of expression as a right resulted in saving lives when it was first proclaimed during the Enlightenment. It was the Church which was condemning people to death for blasphemy, and the crusaders for free speech were able to save the people so condemned. Now, in our own times, the assertion of this right is leading people to their death. This historical role reversal calls for a deeper explanation.

Oddly, I think, the explanation could also be traced to the Enlightenment itself. The Enlightenment celebrated reason and sought to develop life only along rational lines. It was therefore opposed to the irrational and opposed it with vigour. But with perhaps too much vigour, because it did not pause to distinguish between the irrational and the non-rational. It equated religion with superstition. But while religion does have a problem with superstition it does also cater to deeply felt human need, and thus combines irrational and non-rational elements. The Enlightenment’s fascination with the rational led it to overlook the role of the non-rational in human life, which it conflated with the irrational. But just consider how much of our life consists of the non-rational: our family life, our friendships, our moral intuitions, our religious aspirations, matters of faith — they primarily belong to the non-rational sphere. It is interesting that the darker side of modern civilisation pertains to this very dimension.

How is all this relevant for our present discussion? When the concept of freedom of expression was first formulated, it was formulated in opposition to matters of faith. India in general does not have a tradition of such antagonism towards faith. Perhaps it would like to see the concept of freedom of expression in India evolve in apposition to faith. We know that there is a sensitivity associated in Islam with the figure of the Prophet, in Hinduism with the cow, in Christianity with the cross, and in Sikhism with Guru Granth Sahib. Could attacking them not be considered hate speech? Freedom to offend yes, but freedom to hate? Just as some seek freedom of expression, could the followers of these religions not equally seek freedom of (secular) contempt?

I do not see how the right to offend is superior to the right of people to be respected, as practised for instance in Japanese culture.

The author, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. Views expressed are personal.

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Dharma Files | How many lives is freedom of expression worth?
Dharma Files | How many lives is freedom of expression worth?
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