In his recent interviews, Salman Rushdie has spoken about free speech as the defining feature of a free society. That works fine as a general statement of purpose and as a broad principle. But to imply, as Mr Rushdie and many others do, that freedom of speech is an absolute right is simply wrong.
The classic denunciation of the Rushdie perspective, also known as the ‘harm principle’, is in JS Mill’s, “On Liberty”. According to Mill, “[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others ... [This is because the] only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”
Mill’s formulation, however, goes too far. The reality is that any act or action that goes beyond the person of someone and can impact others in any way must be subject to some reasonable scrutiny or legal-administrative measures. The concept is simple: no expression or action can be granted total freedom unless it is entirely subjective; and even within that framework, most legal-normative systems do not permit suicides, indicating a limit on subjective action too.
Still, as a broad benchmark, the subjective can be granted more freedom: Rushdie could have written a diary and no one would have noticed. But since he is an author who likes to publish and likes to be in everyone’s face, and since he chose to unburden himself of his creativity in a way that didn’t go down well with a large majority of Muslims across states and cultures, countries had to ban his book to prevent rioting and other acts of civil disturbances.
This happens with films all the time. Directors will either let censors delete scenes of gratuitous violence or sex or resign themselves to niche viewership. The debate can go on, as it always does, but the essential point is that freedom as an absolute concept does not exist. Instead, freedoms are always subjected to various legal-normative constraints. Of course, limits vary across societies as do the ‘values’ for which members of a society would be ready to stand up, but totality of freedom is as mythical as free trade, and correctly so.
But there’s another side to the story as well — the threat of violence. The only acceptable way to ‘kill’ Mr Rushdie, or any other writer, would be for a critic to hang them for half-baked magical realism or lack of plot or whatever else critics think constitutes a crime against high literature. Unfortunately, the world is full of bad books and mankind has found no workable filter to prevent the bad ones from getting to the market.
Now we have, in addition to bad books, the Internet, a space so unconstrained for the most part that its promiscuity would easily surpass that of a traditional brothel. So what does one do? Some regulatory mechanisms can be put in place but total policing is neither possible nor desirable. This means that there is no way to stop people like this terrible man in LA who has started a fire, literally and figuratively, that is raging across continents. What does one do with this kind of person?
It would seem to me that laws can be employed to convince such people that starting ‘fires’ is not a good idea. But while it is important to do so, expecting hate speech or actions to consequently disappear entirely would be unrealistic. And that brings us to what Muslim-majority states and societies need to do: they need to treat mobs as mobs. Protestors must be told that they cannot indulge in looting and arson and rioting to protest the behaviour of someone in LA. Also, the West can’t be defeated by killing other ‘Muslims’.
Pakistan does not have the choice of disconnecting from the rest of the world. But if it is to stay connected, it needs to put into place its own laws to deal with offensive content, irrespective of the enforceability of such laws. More importantly, we need to separate the medium from the message and respond to offensive messages without isolating ourselves.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 21st, 2012.
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