The Danger of Surrending our Most Potent Weapon

For me, the freedom of speech is sacrosanct (to the extent that anything about the world is sacrosanct to me) and absolutely non-negotiable. Why?Because to me ideas matter. Ideas are what distinguishes us from other terrestrial life forms and in the ultimate analysis, they lie at the root of all progress any human civilization has made anywhere. There are two other very important facts.

First, not all ideas are good. Second, humans are not infinitely wise and rational. Therefore, it is not usually possible to determine a priori which ideas are good and beneficial. That leads to certain difficulties and the only way out is to let all who wish to express their ideas and the rest can examine them and accept or reject those ideas that don’t make sense. It seems to me that if the any entity arrogates to itself the job of determining which ideas are legitimate and which are not, then we are in for trouble.

The institutions of organized religions — particularly those that arose in the middle east — have always attempted to put a lid on ideas and indeed have burnt at the stake many an author who was foolish enough to bring up ideas that were somehow not acceptable to the powers that be. The European Renaissance was the triumph of ideas over church power. In India, since Indian religions are not organized, that conflict never existed. Ideas did not face organized opposition till monotheistic invaders arrived into India.

Human societies that allow the free expression of ideas do better than those that don’t allow new ideas. The evidence is all around for us to see.

For those of us who value human civilization and human progress — or even those who are merely interested in economic growth and development — our best tools are ideas. The source of these ideas is free people who have the freedom to bring forth new ideas. We progress only by looking at things in new ways, which is what ideas allow us to do. The minimal condition necessary for ideas is the freedom of speech.

Freedom of speech and expression has value in itself but it is also instrumental in giving rise to good ideas. The ancients in India realized the power of ideas. A Rig Vedic prayer roughly translates into “Let Noble Thoughts Come to Us From All Directions.”

It’s a war out there. The war is eventually one of ideas. Those who are short of ideas, are forced to resort to weapons. Suicide bombings, terrorism, rioting in the streets — all these are done by people who have no good ideas and are so threatened by the power of ideas that they seek to destroy those who have good ideas.

Look around and see who are the terrorists and suicide bombers and rioters. They don’t have ideas, and perhaps know that they cannot compete and lash out in their fury to show that they do have some power. Terrorism is the weapon of the powerless and the idea-less.

Surrendering the freedom of speech is stupid. It is stupid to surrender the most potent source of one’s strengths.

It is a mystery to me why some apparently smart people don’t understand the need for the absolute freedom of expression. Don’t they get it that that is the source of all progress?

Here’s an example. Shashi Tharoor is clearly very intelligent. Yet, in a debate with Christopher Hitchens, he is clearly wrong. See for yourself. (I think this debate took place around 2007 or so.)

I have only watched parts 1 and 2 of the nine parts. I look forward to the rest. Have fun.

Author: Atanu Dey


22 thoughts on “The Danger of Surrending our Most Potent Weapon”

  1. Atanu,

    I am being kind of devil’s advocate here, but what I think people are objecting to is the fact that this guy is doing all this on public exchequer’s dime. Speaking as someone whose hard earned money is extorted by government, I am kind of bothered by this.


    1. Gaurav:

      If that is what they are objecting to, I did not get that impression. And in any case, how does anyone know for sure whether Tellis wrote his opinion piece for the newspaper during office hours or not?


  2. Good one. Only thing i want to point out is Sikhism is a very organized religion in India, but in that too there is not much scope for freedom of speech courtesy some vested interests that feel religion and politics go hand in hand and because of this reason the religion is shrinking rapidly. You are absolutely right about the fact that any entity that does not favour freedom of speech and flow of ideas is doomed.


  3. I agree with you Atanu… But then this applies to madarasas and all their teachings too which brainwash and make terrorists commit suicide bombings making us suffer also… Should they be allowed to do that? The persons who are committing suicide are not intelligent enough to decide whether what they do is right or wrong. It is fine if he wants to commit suicide because of indoctrination, though some people might argue that even this is unacceptable, but there is bigger problem of those people causing us danger???? Now how should this be dealt???


  4. My simple rule is that one should grant a person the freedom which he himself is ready to grant to others.

    When someone uses phrases like this. (There are many such in the the passages that Tellis wrote at Offstumped and Acorn).

    “tiring as it is to answer a bunch of rightwing, raving, ranting, calling-to-burn-at-the stake bunch of fundamentalists which is what most of you are”

    I dont think such a man deserves a job as a professor. He simply hates the people who disagree with him. He is just like those intolerant Christian missionaries. I wonder how he got the job in first place.


  5. Hello Atanu, long since I posted in your blog!!

    I completely agree with you, since I also believe in complete and absolute freedom of expression. If we don’t let men speak out their minds, we won’t be able to identify the wolf among sheep (looking at freedom from a different angle 😉 )

    But, one of my grouse is, if I get to hear some leftist talks, say something about how the west is enslaving the other world again through capital etc, my BP shoots up and I end up getting highly jittery. So, while I let the other person talk, offering him/her complete freedom of expression, I would want to shield myself from whatever they are blabbering by not listening to it!!!


  6. What bothered me about the chap is his pedestrian way of interacting with critics. Look at the “exhibits” over at Seriously Sandeep. Certain people, those that represent institutions of learning, justice, law-making etc do not have the luxury of getting down and dirty in their public interactions. That sort of behavior reflects poorly on the institution they work for, much as their good conduct brings glory to it.


  7. I agree with Ananth- in fact, madrasas in Western countries are using the very same freedom of expression to propagate their hatred.

    It is good for ideas to flourish, provided people engage in debate and think things over before acting on them. Religious propaganda by its very nature refuses the right to be questioned or leave any scope for debate.
    So should we make a special case here- allow free speech other than religious hatred? Starting out with exceptions is quite a slippery slope.


  8. ” The minimal condition necessary for ideas is the freedom of speech “.


    But you are not quite right when you say ” Ideas did not face organized opposition till monotheistic invaders arrived into India “.

    Sri. Aadi Shankara’s Adhvaitham faced & still face violent opposition from dvaitha & visishta-dvaitha schools of thought.

    Padmapaadhar one of AShankara’s disciples went to a relative’s house in SriRangam with an advaitic text composed by him. The fanatic dvaiti relative set fire to the room in which the text was kept. Ofcourse wringing his hands , wailing & bemoaning the loss of such a priceless scripture to con Padmapadhar into believing it was an accident not arson by him.

    The guileless P offered to write it down , as obviously , it was His composition. The diabolical relative fed him food mixed with toxic herbs inducing loss of memory & insanity.

    Eventually P was cured by His Guru Aadi Shankara.

    Christianity as is being understood by many is in many ways similar to dvaita & visishta-dvaita. Placing God at some distance high up somewhere & exhorting the gullible to exert & exert for merging in Him:)

    Whereas Advaita unflinchingly reiterates the oneness of all beings. Our Upanishads deal with it in marvellously unambiguous words.

    However that does not mean we relinquish Ethics & Values.


  9. Indians in general I find are too touchy incapable of taking banter in their stride leave alone laughing at themselves.

    But are full of purple quotations & stories from our Epics….how Lord Krishna clutched Draupadi’s footwear to His chest , how Sri Rama conducted Himself , Nalayini did this Damayanti did that…..

    Their zeal to prove themselves right by sacrificing even truth is simply overwhelming.


  10. lest the word ‘ oneness ‘ should be misinterpreted clarifying further.

    Nowhere is GOD negated in Upanishads.

    A drop of water is the same water as water in an Ocean. BUT , in scope & power a water droplet is not the same as an Awesome Ocean.


  11. ” Shashi Tharoor is clearly very intelligent. Yet, in a debate with Christopher Hitchens, he is clearly wrong “.


    Shashi Tharoor just does not understand that freedom of speech is non negotiable. He also does not comprehend , inimical cultures or people can never really have a peaceful co-existence. It unravels sooner than expected.

    One more instance of our lamentably die hard tendency to worship false gods & their icons:-

    Sometime back someone published a photograph of a crow’s nest built in the crook of an arm of some statue of Indira Gandhi in Kolkata. This spurred the merciless authorities into simply killing all the fledgeling birds & destroying their nest.

    This is the country that tirelessly preens how Valmiki’s Ramayana originated ; how King Paari left his very chariot for a jasmine creeper to spread & flourish & so forth.


  12. I agree with what Offstumped feels about Ethics.

    Certainly don’t concur with you Atanu Dey. Am not surprised as you sort of defended the late Australian scientist who settled down in Srilanka despite being alleged to be a paedophile. Am reminded of people like khushboo & shobhaa de who have their own fan following.Who are no mean opinion makers either (unfortunately in the Page3 celebs besotted contemporary culture).

    It all centres on one’s character & the choices one makes. Despite having seemingly everything Ravanan & Kauravas eventually lost only because they courted adharmam.

    As far as Ethics go I don’t like wishy washy stand justified by verbal pyrotecnics & threats of law suits. One always leads a seamless existence. Nothing like wearing a virtuous hat within office & a hanky panky one outside office.


  13. to the anynonymous Advaiti-dvaiti:

    Dvaita and Visishtadvaita came after Advaita (probably decades or one century apart or so). So, I am not sure how could Padmapadhar be crucified (attempted) by a Dvaiti in his life time…


  14. Adhvaitham is not some creed or a set of sectarian belief systems with a date of origin & hence expiry. Where is the question of coming & going & this century that century ??

    Very often presumptuous physicists & scientists who are full of Einstein’s theories etc hungrily ask for date of birth of Aadi Shankara -:((


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