“CAESAR: Pardon him, Theodotus: he is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.”
–George Bernard Shaw in “Caesar and Cleopatra”
I titled my two previous pieces exploring the freedom of expression as “The Freedom to be Offended” deliberately. Everyone is free to take offense, which is the flip side of the individual right to free speech. If the speech of one has to be restricted because someone else is offended, then taken to its logical conclusion we would arrive at the absurd position where no one will have the right to express anything.
So here is what I would attempt to do here. First, I would argue that in a world which is a heterogeneous aggregation of people with diverse viewpoints, restricting the freedom to express one’s viewpoint leads to undesirable and absurd situations. Then I will argue why it makes immense practical sense to not proscribe free speech. The evolution of human civilization is critically dependent on this single right. Indeed, free speech is not just a consequence of a civilized society, it is a cause – if not the cause – of a civilized society. I argue that civilization itself is not possible without the freedom for individuals to express what they perceive as their truth. Note that I do not say “the truth” but rather “their truth.” Next I argue why development and economic growth itself is dependent on this right. I will justify why this topic is relevant in the context of India’s development.
The Pastafarians® happen to believe, among other things, that global warming is a consequence of the decrease in the numbers of pirates. They point out the inverse relationship between the number of pirates in the world and global warming. Their deity, the Flying Spaghetti Monster™, has instructed them that all other explanations of global warming are blasphemous and therefore the Pastafarians® are mortally offended by so-called “scientists” who extend all sorts of sacrilegious arguments which involve green-house gasses and other pseudo-scientific theories. They point out that the so-called “scientific” theories are just that—theories not fact. The fact, according to Pastafarians®, is that fewer pirates leads to global warming. They insist that the threat of global warming can only be met by more people becoming pirates. They may soon launch a world-wide campaign to outlaw the publication of any explanation not consistent with their pirate dogma which they say their Prophet received when He was Touched by the Noodly Appendage ® of the Flying Spaghetti Monster ™.
“Yeah, yeah,” you may say dismissively, “but they are only a couple of million people who believe in that sort of silliness. They are not a real religion with hundreds of millions of followers.”
I am not sure that the argument by numbers holds much water. Here is what I mean. Just because a very small minority believe in something that the vast majority considers incorrect does not imply that the minority belief is wrong. Only a minority in the whole of Christendom at one time believed that the earth was not flat and they were right and the majority wrong.
So if one has to proscribe the freedom of expression of some based on the prejudices of a large group, there is no reason to not proscribe the freedom of expression based on the prejudices of a small group. The freedom to be offended has to be granted to all groups irrespective of size. In which case, we arrive at the absurd position where nothing can ever be expressed by anyone.
I am a non-monotheist. I am offended by speech which expresses a belief in a monotheistic vengeful cruel dictatorial meddlesome God as in the Judeo Christian Islamic tradition. So to suit my sensibilities, monotheists would be compelled to stop their profession of their belief in the One True God ™ . Not only will they be forced to stop their shouting on loudspeakers their beliefs several times a day, they will have to stop publishing them in their “holy books.”
Someone else may be offended by my expression of my belief that life arose on earth not from divine intervention but through natural processes and the diversity of life is explained by Darwin’s thesis of evolution through natural selection. Darwin’s theory will have to be outlawed, as they are attempting to do in the US, because some people find it offensive to suggest that there is no Big Daddy Up in the Sky™ .
The Amish believe that modern conveniences such as electricity and mechanized forms of transportations are not good. They could push to outlaw the industrial parts of our society. There are some Christian sects that believe that modern medicine is evil since it interferes with the will of the One True God™ and only the power of prayer should be brought upon illness and disease. We, therefore, will have to outlaw medical science research and stop the practice of medicine.
Name any thing or any idea, and I will show you a group which considers that thing immoral, or unethical, or evil and that it offends them. They are free to be offended and I support that freedom as much as I support the freedom of expression. But in a world which is diverse, it is absurd to move from the freedom to take offense to preventing others from expressing themselves, irrespective of whether that expression is artistic, scientific, cultural, or religious. Worse still is the use of violence to stop people from expressing themselves.
Imagine that the neo-conservatives in the US gain absolute power and decide that Intelligent Design™ is the only permitted dogma and all societies that don’t believe in ID, are committing an offense and the US will nuke them since they have nukes.
The followers of one particular monotheistic faith have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to use violence as a response to perceived slights and insults arising from the exercise of free speech in parts of the world not governed by that monotheistic faith’s laws. This is particularly pernicious because there are signs that some people are caving in because of the natural fear of being killed.
The Western Civilization has been the most evolved in terms of the freedom they grant themselves with regards speech. If they start retreating now, they would lose their hard-earned victories. Next time I will argue why the freedom of expression is the cause and consequence of not just the Western civilization but the global civilization as a whole. Show me one society where speech is proscribed by religious dogma and I will show you a backward underdeveloped society.
Why Free Speech.