Rights and Wrongs of Expression

Every society puts some degree of limits on speech and expression, depending on its norms. It is obvious that there is bound to be a conflict between the need for expression and its suppression. This is where the concept of the ‘right’ of expression comes in. It is a fact that the mighty have always sought to control the meek and lay down rules to their own benefit. Controlling expression, and, by subtle means even thought, has always been instrumental in ensuring that the powerful maintain their sway. Philosophers, thinkers and reformers have long been debating the right of humans to express themselves freely, and struggled to establish this fundamental right. Indeed it cannot be denied that the right of expression has been instrumental in improving the lot of mankind down the ages. Ideas and ideologies, including the various organized religions, have flourished because of freedom of expression, regardless of whether it already existed, or was obtained through struggle and strife, war and victory.

          As mankind evolved into societies and civilizations, increasing interdependence meant that rights of individuals became subject to the duties and responsibilities of other individuals. Man tends to be selfish, which may ultimately just be an exaggerated expression of his sense of self-preservation. But this means that duties and responsibilities of individuals are too important to be left to their whim, and so require to be emphasized through laws. The importance of laws or a code of conduct in the evolution of society and civilization cannot be denied, the right of expression being no exception. However, even a hint of this right being denied provokes outrage and a spate of indignant editorials. The extreme sensitivity of the issue is understandable, and also responsible for the hyper-reaction at times in the name of protecting the right. This has led to a raging debate in the media making the right of expression a burning issue in recent times. The cartoon controversy with regard to the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) is a typical example. The media or civil society groups who pledge unconditional support to this brand of right of expression claim that any restrictions on its freedom could lead to partial or even complete suppression, paving the way for individuals or the state to misuse laws. They therefore advocate absolute liberty of expression and won’t allow any restrictions, no matter how damaging or provocative its use could be when viewed from others’ perspective.

          One cannot help drawing an analogy with a person who leans back till about to fall and then over-corrects by leaning forward too sharply, and topples over, only in the opposite direction. For isn’t it true that while upholding an individual’s ‘right’ to free expression, these groups may actually be infringing on the rights of a lot of others. The right of expression is undoubtedly important but that does not necessarily mean that it is above all other rights, particularly the right of equality and the right to live a life of dignity. In fact, at times it may appear that in their over-enthusiasm, these groups seek to add to the right of expression clauses for a right to ridicule, a right to abuse and a right to denigrate.

          While it might be ‘politically correct’ and even fashionably liberal to launch malicious and scatological attacks on a particular religion, raising a ‘politically incorrect’ doubt may become a crime. For instance, a frank discussion on the Jewish holocaust is a big taboo in an otherwise liberal and enlightened world, and questioning it a punishable crime in some European countries. You may denigrate a particular religion if you like, and out of sheer spite, malign and ridicule with impunity a personage whom millions hold in reverence, and count on the entire world to leap to your defense and spend millions on your security, but your ‘homophobic’ comments could land you in jail!  Of course, the rules of ‘political correctness,’ and by extension, of the right of expression, always keep changing.