Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Freedom of expression. Who sets the limit?

A picture of the South African President, Jacob Zuma, drawn by artist Brett Murray had to be withdrawn from the website of a newspaper following protests. As pictures go, it was a nice one, the only point of controversy being that he was shown nude waist down, with his private parts displayed. (source)

The artist says she was ‘abused’ and therefore was compelled to remove it. Most writers and columnists rallied to her support and expressed their sympathy. Their contention was that she merely used her artistic licence and the basic right of freedom of expression. 

There have been enough debates in different countries involving various artists on what constitutes freedom of speech or expression. Writers and artists who make a living out of such stuff want unlimited rights and no curbs whatsoever. Govts and censors like to restrict this freedom when they sense trouble brewing from some other section of society. 

So where does one draw this line between ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘vulgarity’ or ‘offensiveness”?Who defines where this line is?

A.C.Grayling discusses this dilemma in an essay:

The central point around which the others must revolve, is that free speech is a fundamental of such great importance that without it we could have only the most limited society and the most stunted possibilities for individuals. This is because without free speech we cannot claim to other liberties and rights, or defend them when they are attacked; we could not have democracy, which depends on the expression of opinion, debate, criticism and challenge; we could not have education worth the name, for it depends on the free exchange of information; we could not have any but the most pedestrian and formulaic literature, theatre, television and art; in short without free speech our lives would be as closed as our mouths.

But we know very well that for all its vital importance, free speech is not an absolute. It has to be responsibly and maturely used, all the more so because of its potential for misuse. It can be a fig leaf for doing damage and stirring trouble from motives that are not consistent with the other family of ideals in which free speech is a member.

It is in fact not hard to draw the required line. To speak insultingly or act discriminately- even if you do it indirectly- with respect to the race, sex, sexuality, age and disability if any, of other people, is unacceptable. These are things over which individuals have no choice or control. In respect of what people can choose, such as their political or religious commitments, how they dress, how they entertain themselves, it is open season: people must bear the consequences of their choices, including the disagreements, amusement and even the contempt of others. “Feeling offended’ is no defence against attack on your political or religious views by those who do not share them, and indeed it is a vital feature of a healthy society that over matters of choice there should be a vigorous debate, of which satire and humour are a welcome and often revealing part”. 

Using this principle, it can be argued that the artist merely depicted the South African President-  as he really is below the waist, and therefore he has no grounds to take offence. Can it? I’m not sure.

What about religion? Is it in my control? I was born a Hindu, and did not exercise any choice. Am I then entitled to take offence when Husain paints pictures of nude Hindu goddesses? No. Applying Grayling’s logic, I have chosen to remain a Hindu when I could possibly have converted to some religion, or could have cut off allegiance to any religion. As I chose to remain a Hindu, I must bear the consequence and accept criticism. Similarly, Muslims cannot take offence when a Danish cartoonist comes up with something that caricatures them. 

Grayling doesn’t claim to provide unambiguous answers. Obviously, in such matters, there may not be any. But he points us in the general direction of a possible answer. In fact his essay is part of a series called “ Thinking of Answers’

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