The Freedom to be Offended — Part 2

In a comment on my previous post, Nath declares that the “tough part is choosing where exactly to draw the line between legal and illegal.”

It is tough only if that line is arbitrarily drawn according to the whims and fancies of mobs. In most societies, it is drawn after due consideration and enshrined in some institution often called the constitution.

The line between what is legal and what is not is drawn by the society in question. It is the law of the land and determining whether an act is legal or not is the job of the courts of the land. Each society has a some mechanism in place for deciding what is permissible and what is not. The important point to note is that laws vary from place to place. What is legal and permissible is local; there is no global standard that can (or even should) be applied. Problems arise when one does not appreciate that distinction.

For instance, the Danish society is governed by Danish law, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia by Islamic law. The attempt by Danes to impose Danish law in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be as insane as the attempt by the Saudi Arabians to impose Islamic law in Denmark.

Let me repeat the last bit.

I would be as much out of place if I insist that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia discard the Koran as the constitution of the land as I would be if I insist that Denmark adopt Sharia as the law of the land.

The Saudis don’t allow the religious books of any other religion, including those of other monotheistic faiths, within their borders. That is what their law says, which is reflection of the will of their people. They are absolutely and fundamentally entitled to make their own laws and impose them within their borders. If you don’t like it, you are welcome to not live in Saudi Arabia. But if you live in Saudi Arabia, you have to live in accordance with the laws of that country. But if the Saudi Arabians wish to impose that same law in another society, they are absolutely and fundamentally wrong and should be put in their place with the greatest of haste and the least amount of fuss.

The freedom of expression is granted to the citizens of Denmark by the citizens of Denmark. If you don’t like the Danish exercising that right within the borders of Denmark, if you are offended by their freedom to read and write what they please subject to Danish law, tough luck. You are free to not associate with the Danes and their freedom to express themselves. In a liberal society, freedom of expression is a non-negotiable right. That right is a result of enlightenment and I will be damned if I do not speak up for that remarkable event. My only prayer is that one day — hopefully within my own lifetime — India would have the right to free expression.

One of the most specious arguments trotted out at this juncture is that there are limits to free speech and that shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre is an example of a practical and necessary limitation of free speech. First, shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre is dangerous only if the society consists of panic-striken idiots, as someone remarked. Second, if there is a fire in the theatre, that is precisely what one should shout. Finally in the absense of a fire, if shouting “fire” leads to panic and harm, the correct response is not to outlaw free speech, or to argue for limiting free speech, but to punish according to the laws of the land for false speech. Blurring the distinction between false speech and free speech does not get us too far.

Shouting “fire” any time the mood strikes you in a crowded theatre is no more an expression free speech than defecating in the conference room is an expression of the freedom to use the toilet.

The current spat is about an attempt to impose the narrow viewpoint of a particular people globally. It is an attempt to apply Islamic restrictions on non-Islamic people. Any compromise on resisting such a vile move is a dangerous and slippery slope. Today it is a cartoon, tomorrow it will be what I should read, and the day after what I should wear. For it could be argued in a few years’ time that people eating during a certain time is an offense according to Islam, and so no one should eat during those times.

Just to make it perfectly clear: I am all in favor of Islamic law in Islamic countries. More power to them. But when they attempt to impose their will on my land, I will fight them to the bitter end. The dhimmis may lower their trousers and bend over. Not me.

[Continued in Freedom to be Offended — Part 3.]

16 thoughts on “The Freedom to be Offended — Part 2

  1. Just to counter with another perspective: what about when Hindus living in the US or Europe (and thereby holidng citizenship) are offended by pictures of Hindu Gods on branded cereals or underwear or some such? Would you say they have the right to protest what they perceive as an offensive use of their venerated images? If so, can one argue that to Danish-Muslim citizens (indeed there must be some!) these cartoons are repugnant and they have the right to seek redress??

    Just to clarify, I agree with the sum and substance of what you are saying, but I just don’t feel the issue is as black and white as you’ve drawn (i.e. ethnically homogeneous countries with laws catering to the majority ethno-religious population group) – its seems a little simplistic, if I may say so.

    Atanu’s response: Let me spell it out very slowly. I am against the restriction of the freedom of expression. Period. That means I support the right of anyone to express whatever they wish to about whatever. No limits. If Muslims feel that Jews are pigs, I support their right to say so in words, pictures, speeches, dances and demostrations. If Christians feel that about Muslims, I support their right to express it. If a firm uses Ganesh’s image on their underwear or toilet seat or whatever, it is none of my business. They are free to do what they please within the law and I am free to buy their goods or not.

    This is just a brief comment but I will explore this in an article in a few days explaining why I see red when the freedom of expression is trampled upon — whether by Bush, by Hindus, by Muslims, or Martians.


  2. What you say here is just the well-accepted and workable theory of to-each-unto-himself as applied to different nations too.
    What should be rules of free speech and right to free expression in a global single world? What should be the international law regarding ‘expression’ for the whole earth? – where Muslims or Hindus have the same rights and duties as the Great Danes/danish journalists?


  3. If a firm uses Ganesh’s image on their underwear or toilet seat or whatever, it is none of my business. They are free to do what they please within the law and I am free to buy their goods or not.

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. Saudi Arabia is allowed to boycott Danish goods, and make as much of a scene as it wants via appropriate diplomatic channels. They are only violating anyone’s rights when they actually threaten to arrest people outside their borders–as far as I know, this hasn’t happened yet. (The cartoonists have indeed been illegally threatened, but not–to my knowledge–by a government.)


  4. Perhaps what also needs emphasis are the ways of exercising the responsibility that goes with a freedom. Put another way, criticisms to support any particular freedom are based on the varied perceptions about the responsibilities that accompany it. In practice, we tend to interpret “Your freedoms stop where my nose begins” as prescriptions for others than our own selves. Here’s another example.

    An aside: I wonder if it is possible to compare the returns of upholding freedoms responsibly versus coercive responses. Just my fanciful flight :).

    I enjoyed this a lot.


  5. Excellent and a very relevant post. I also had the same question as Kamolika and also wondered about this issue with regards to the cyber media. What rules govern this space and how does one draw the line there? Will wait for your article –” explaining why I see red when the freedom of expression is trampled upon”


  6. The Muslims are welcome to boycott and protest, but death theats are not acceptable. Radical islamists have a history of actually killing people because they are offended like (Theo Van Gogh). Also, the newspaper and the Danish farmers who produce cheese are different people and the latter have absolutely no control over the former.

    I recommend the book by VS Naipaul, Among the Believers


  7. My comment is boring and useless because I agree with al I just read. The sanctimonious self-censorship called “political correctness” or just “sensitivity” or even “being nice” is insidious. But then, one way or another we are evidently tossing our liberties in the trash anyhow in the search for safety, for accommodation, for the hope of an unruffled life. Pfaugh.


  8. I agree completely. With all of it. No argument. Political correctness, and the ladylike wish to offend no one — or worse, the fear that those who take offense will hurt us — is not worth the trade of our robust liberties. If they don’t like the cartoons, they should not look at the cartoons. I don’t much like the few I have been able to see, myself.


  9. I agree with you completely with the freedom of speech thing.

    The only thing I don’t understand is how this is going to stop the expressions of this freedom, which spread hate. (e.g. use of swastika, denial of holocaust, or images of Mohd. as a terrorist). If sane heads prevail, then even with the freedom to do all of these things, people will not do them because they know it will spread hate and cause divisions. The cartoonist himself may not have wanted to (physically) harm anyone, but I am sure the cartoon will physically harm people. The many other European papers who re-published the cartoons to support freedom of speech were not thinking about spreading hatred or causing divisions. Was it their right to re-publish them? YES! Were they very smart in re-publishing them? HELL NO! (at least in my opinion)

    We know that saner heads don’t usually prevail. Many countries are led by bunch of idiots. In your own words, “we live in a ‘second best’ world” (if I remember that correctly). How then are we to ensure that actions/expressions that spread hate and cause divisions don’t occur AND that we don’t undermine the freedom of speech/expression of views at the same time?


  10. Atanu, thanks for clarifying your position and like I said – while I agree that freedom of speech should be upheld – I tend to believe that questions like that raised by Sameer cannot be done away with (expressions like ‘XYZ MUST be absolute’ themselves smack off an unwillingness and intolerance of other’s views, don’t you think?)

    As an individual my right to freedom of speech is limited by laws of slander and libel – to be used if what I say is untrue and can prove damaging to others. In the area of politics between nations or religions or castes, are there no responsibilities that attend upon writing or saying whatever you feel like?

    Like talking about reviving Sati for instance? Or legalising female foeticide? Or giving second citizen status to non-Hindus in India? – and don’t even kid yourself for a moment that these views will not find enthusiastic adherents – there are enough crazies to go around!!

    Atanu’s response: I think you have pointed out the most critical element in the whole debate. You write “As an individual my right to freedom of speech is limited by laws of slander and libel…” The operative phrase is “limited by laws.”

    Laws limit free speech. And laws are local. They define what is legal and what is illegal in a specific location. In Denmark, the law says freedom to publish cartoons ridiculing religious figures is legal. In Saudi Arabia, speaking vilely of non-Muslims and non-Islamic religions is legal, but speaking ill of Islam is not. The problem is when one tried to apply the laws of one location globally.


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