Much has been said about the question of the right to free expression in the wake of the Taslima Nasreen and Rushdie affairs as well as instances of other perceived acts of offensiveness,including those allegedly committed by Jay Leno and Jeremy Clarkson.Arguments on both sides have been made,with opinions being divided on largely predictable lines.
The really interesting question is as to why this entire phenomenon exists in the form it does.Why do governments act as they do and why do groups religious,cultural and social react with such touchiness,often to events and utterances they have personally not been exposed to,like in the case of Salman Rushdies book or the TV shows in question.Indeed,we often hear of the triggers for the outrage only through reports of outrage;we become offended upon hearing that we are offended.
One proximate explanation is that in a 24X7 media world that is intricately interconnected,any small act of taking umbrage becomes blown up instantly and becomes mainstream news;in a fragmented political system,shorn of any ideological beliefs,any lever to organize voters in a collective becomes attractive,both as a device to catch votes as well as a form of insurance.Principles are abstract and secular,while sentiments potentially translate into voting blocs.
But what when votes are not involved like in the case of Clarksons comments It would seem that here touchiness comes from another place;those who have traditionally been at the wrong end of the power ladder are displaying their new found sense of place by flexing the outrage muscle.The idea of getting insulted and demanding redress is a time honoured method of drawing boundaries and agitating for respect.It is a reverse form of bullying that relies on the fact that the dominant politically correct narrative of the times decrees that emerging cultures and social groups be treated with exaggerated deference.The right to be offended becomes an important weapon in the armoury of minority and power-deprived groups.At a deeper level the state,by virtue of being part of a discourse of rights and individual freedom,has begun to play a much greater role and having a much more influential say in the social life of its constituents.What was earlier a function of social,cultural and religious formations has increasingly become part of the states mandate.
An extreme example of this can be seen in the episode unfolding in Norway,where the state acting under universalist notions of rights,has interpreted culturally specific behaviour as an infringement of the childrens rights and has in the name of doing the right thing,traumatized the family.
In other times,infringement of social norms attracted action from social structures;society represented itself,on cultural issues,for most part.The reversal in the power equation between state and society has meant that the state feels the need to take responsibility for acts of cultural transgressions,something that it is intrinsically ill equipped to do.
Democracy helps cultural considerations infect the otherwise secular nature of the state,which uses the framework at its disposal,the one that uses rules,boundaries and rights to deal with these intangible issues.At the heart of the problem lies the confusion created by the tension between excessive political correctness that mandates a certain level of touchiness about symbolic actions and celebrates the intolerance of any perceived faults,and the underlying hypocrisy that governs behaviour in the real world.We profess one thing and practise another be it in questions of race,gender,ethnicity or religion.At one level,we must be respectful of other cultures,faiths and viewpoints that we may not fully understand or agree with,but the moment that involves anything more than symbolic agreement,we have a problem.It doesnt help that matters get muddied by all parties seeking to get mileage out of these controversies,each posturing for its own perceived constituencies.The use of a rights framework converts relative truths or untruths into absolutes.
Fatwas are issued on both sides,in a manner of speaking.The idea of freedom of expression is pushed to its limit,in order to exhibit the principle,and the right to get offended hardens into a self-righteous licence to violence.Of course,the battle is not always an equal one as we have seen in this country recently,for those holding the banner for the right to free speech do not have the political clout of those being offended but as we saw in Norway,it works the other way too.The touchiness of activists is no less fearsome than that of religious zealots,nor is their mode of reaction any less religious.
In a multi-cultural environment of any kind,good behaviour is much more about reciprocity than about rights.Social mechanisms have much greater subtlety and flexibility than do rigid notions of right and wrong.The problem today is that bad behaviour gets valorized on all sides;those taking extreme positions get rewarded.Minor acts of intolerance or provocation make headlines while major acts of reconciliation and accommodation go unheralded.Intemperateness is mistaken for strength and what should have been the realm of some hard but good-natured negotiation of intangibles becomes an arena of conflict where every concession is the loss of something fundamental.
The governments reactions in recent times are both difficult to understand and defend.At worst,they have been cynical and expedient and at best naive and silly.But deeper issues lurk beneath this surface,and those are unlikely to be resolved by the framework we have at our disposal.They need a kind of wisdom that we do not seem to have a way of reaching.