Sunday, 31 July 2011

Misuse of a sacred right

The right to free speech is a right whose value you only appreciate when you don't have it. This blogger has experienced what it is not to have that right - where every conceivable & useful global site on the internet is blocked, where any non state controlled TV channel is simply unavailable and where the press is just plain awful. As it would be for any blogger, the right is a precious one. There is the usual saying, I don't like what you say, but I'll defend your right to say it. But is the right to free speech as absolute as it is thought to be. Should it be ?

No right is absolute. Even in America, where the First Amendment protects free speech,  Jutice Holmes Jr in Schenk vs United States observed that shouting Fire falsely in a crowded theatre will not be protected by the First Amendment. In many European countries, denial of the holocaust is not permitted. Recently incitement to religious hatred has also been brought under the ambit of no nos. In India, writings which are seen as offensive to any community and are likely to cause violence are banned.

In the United States, by and large anything goes. And the right is jealously protected, as it should be. In the good old days, you could stand on a soap box and rant for all you want. Or you could find your way into a newspaper. Your audience was limited. But today, any person has an instantaneous global audience. In such a world, does anything go ? Should anything go ?

What about the extremism heard on radio and read in books in the US and the often thinly veiled incitement to violence. What about some notorious imams, who use the precher's pulpit in many parts of the world to declare jihad. What about the deliberate provocation by crazy outfits like the Shiv Sena in India who threaten violence against anybody it doesn't like ? Should their rights of free speech be curtailed.

I ask this, because I saw a video of the sort of right wing extremism that seems to be on the increase in the US. Watch this video (its 20 odd minutes long, but its highly disturbing, to say the least) - my attention to this video was drawn by the blog The Peking Duck. Some deranged idiot takes a leaf out of such rantings and goes and causes serious damage - its not OK to say that it was purely the madman's fault. Something like this has indeed happened in that awful incident in Norway. That crazy seems to have been inspired, amongst other things, by extremist bloggers such as Pam Geller.

We want to wage war against the madrassas that preach hatred and violence. I am not sure that the talk radio extremists are not dangerously close to treading on similar territory. 

The right to free speech is a sacred right. It should not be misused. When it is misused, the remedy is not a government action curtailing the right. But equally, society cannot stand by and watch the right misused. Societies world over have a moral duty to tame the extremism that seems to be increasing in the media. We should not sit quietly and allow our precious right to be misused by a few. Remember, words do kill.


Anonymous said...

I wish some of my fellow Americans understood our country and it's problems as well as a blogger half a world away in India.

Again, another topic I could spend hours on. But I'll leave it at, the discourse in this country not only by politicians, but among the citizenry has never been more toxic than it is now. There has always been disagreement, but some are starting to foster hate and I wouldn't discount the violent rhetoric as a contributor.

Here is another clip to watch regarding the hateful rhetoric and violence. He may be a late night comedian, but in my opinion, nobody on the airwaves in any format is doing a better job at cutting through the hypocrisy of both sides than Jon Stewart.

Anonymous said...

Jon followed that clip up with this one, which I find particularly enlightening.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to bombard this thread with links Ramesh, but this one, you gotta see this one from Colbert. Do you recieve Fox News in India? I think you'll find their journalistic integrity on full display here:

gils said...

a country which has legalised owning guns and till now doesnt have a living president who can stand up against it..hard to believe they would be afraid of words. Does words hurt more than bullets? wow.."Alphabets are mightier than bullets" should be the new "pen is mightier than sword" :)

Ramesh said...

@Hopfrog - Thanks for all the links. They are brilliant. Hadn't seen any of them before. This is why America is such a great nation. It can poke fun at itself and I have every reason to hope that this season of extremism and toxicity will cool down soon into the throbbing , vivacious society that America really is.

@Gils - Unfortunately alphabets are mighty Gils. Indoctrination has been a chief cause of some of the violence and atrocities being committed across the world. The gun may be the tool, but the real cause is words, I feel.

Ravi Rajagopalan said...

As an avid follower of the American public ethos, I listen to the right wing hate rhetoric as much as I do follow the left wing rants (yes there are some ranters on the left wing..). I think that to understand it, one must stand in the shoes of those who follow hate rhetoric. They inhabit a world that they increasingly do not understand. They are subject to pressures from forces they cannot see or comprehend. Islamic militants flying planes into Manhattan? Greedy bankers creating a crisis that results in businesses closing in Smalltown USA? I do not condone hate. But these radio jocks - criminals all of them - are feeding into the insecurities of a country. We can hope for higher standards in public life, to make Republican and Democrat alike do a better job of explaining the world to their constituents. However this is too much to hope for, and there is no historical precedent. Roman and Greek politicos 2000 years ago behaved in very much the same way. The Federal structure of the United States actually provides the constitutional framework to localise politics, so that Beltway politics do not end up isolating legislators. Even so. Very sad state of affairs.

Anonymous said...

"Roman and Greek politicos 2000 years ago behaved in very much the same way"

It truly is amazing, history constantly repeats itself. Greece brought democracy to the world and it's been a struggle ever since. I'll make the case though, the struggle is at the very heart of democracy. Compromise is democracy working.

Ramesh said...

@Ravi - You've pointed out the difficulties of coping with a strange and changing world very rightly as one of the reasons. I think its also because increasingly you have to shock and provoke to be heard amidst the massive clutter in the media. The dog bites man syndrome. To be heard you have to be rabid . Moderates get drowned out.

Vishal said...

It is not only the right wing.. provocation of any sort does not do any good. My hands sway in despair thousand times when I think of those deadly acts of terrorism - of any kind.

Don't understand human tendency to take strong positions on the either side merely by the fact they like or dislike one particular set of ideology so vehemently.

I also detest the role of media in this. They conduct the prime time shows assuming they are the arbitrators in the court of law - all to gain mileage points ahead of competing news channels. Few news channels try to impose their viewpoints on the audience with help of some desperate-to-be-heard so called experts. Really not sure whether they are really aiding the government and society at large in solving these problems.

Sandhya Sriram said...

Very difficult topic that you have touched.

it is very difficult to draw a line on where an individual freedom to speech becomes harmful and it is impossible to curtail it by any ruling or law or court.

I think the media and press at large should play a constructive role here and run anti campaigns. the few supporters to these non sense can be easily out numbered by the many on the other side. all that is needed is to activate them. Only the power of people can kill this. there is no other way.

Ramesh said...

@Vishal - I know. Life is too precious to be wasted on any single dogma. Medai has started to fan extremism quite blatantly. Anything goes under the guise of capturing an audience.

Ramesh said...

@Sandhya - Absolutely true. Censorship never works. If people stop reading or watching hate speech, then automatically it will go away. The problem with ubiquitous media, including blogs, is that even a very small minority can rabble rouse.

rads said...

Should we blame the internet????

Ramesh said...

@Rads - No I don't think so, but the ease of the internet ensures that even a deranged idiot can get an audience. So in a perverse way, internet has to take a bit of the blame.

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