FREE SPEECH, THE RIGHT TO OFFEND, AND DIALOGUE
Why is it that when a book is banned, a movie producer shot, or a publishing house fire-bombed for publishing a book or a cartoon, mediators and professional bodies of Conflict Resolution practitioners don’t protest?
Why, when a special interest group threatens violence against someone whose speech offends its members, don’t peace builders write op-ed pieces or burn up the on-line forums in support of the seeming offender?
Having been part of the mediation and peace building community for the last couple decades, I’m guessing that if I asked my colleagues these questions, they would give one or more of the following answers:
- We mediators and peace builders are ‘neutrals.’ What if tomorrow we were called on to mediate between, say, an Ayotallah and a cartoon publisher out of Holland?
- ‘Respect’ for others requires that we not offend cultural or religious sensitivities. Anything that might be construed as offensive speech is out of bounds.
- As people concerned about justice, equity and the value of multi-cultural societies, we fear that if we allow minorities to be targeted by satire or criticism, we will render them even more vulnerable to abuse and perhaps even violence.
- ‘Perception is reality.’ When people are hurt by offensive or provocative speech, that is their reality, and so the speech must be condemned.
- Criticizing or condemning practices of groups is not only culturally insensitive, but tantamount to inciting violence against the group.
- Pluralistic societies must have boundaries on free speech in order to maintain social harmony.
While these may seem reasonable, at first glance, we should not accept them without serious examination.
When mediators and peace builders remain neutral about free speech issues, we become unwitting accomplices to those who wish to restrict individual human rights and freedom of expression, two key concepts without which democracy is rendered meaningless.
The recent threats by Islamic groups against Salman Rushdie and the weak kneed response of the political establishment and the police that resulted in his having to stay away from a literary festival in Jaipur, India (and later abandon plans for even a video appearance) is only the latest onslaught against freedom of expression in India. In the last twenty years we find that even in the traditional bastions of democracy and free speech like the US and Western Europe special interest groups have acquired the power to dictate what speech is acceptable and what is not.
Practitioners of mediation and dialogue have an interest in free speech and the individual’s right to critique society and groups. Such an interest puts us squarely in the camp of those who are waging a failing war against the sensitivities of religious, ethnic, or racial groups who seek to practice their faiths and traditions without scrutiny or examination. Such groups are particularly allergic to critics and satirists – whom they term infidels, apostates, or blasphemers – who they feel they have the right to silence.
The price of silencing the voices that make us uncomfortable is that we kill the spirit of a people, one voice at a time, and finally lose whatever space we have left for honest expression. Why should this worry mediators and peace builders? Well, for one, without honest expression, there is no dialogue. Without honest dialogue, conflict transformation is not possible. Such consequences should be seriously disconcerting to those of us who love this work, and believe in its power to transform conflicts and societies.
“You say that freedom of utterance is not for time of stress, and I reply with the sad truth that only in time of stress is freedom of utterance in danger. No one questions it in calm days, because it is not needed. And the reverse is true also; only when free utterance is suppressed is it needed, and when it is needed, it is most vital to justice.” ~William Allen White
Democracy, if it is not to degenerate into a farcical and periodical electoral circus, requires that citizens actively participate in intelligent deliberation, debate, and dialogue. As Professor Kenan Malik writes in his book, From Fatwa to Jihad, in secularizing blasphemy we have moved beyond merely treating religious beliefs or groups as sacred; we have reached a stage where any group or culture’s identity is sacred. Now in a hyper sensitive climate any critique or questioning, the very basis of intelligent deliberation, is perceived as disrespectful, offensive, and likely to be banned or silenced.
And yet a gag is not a prop suitable for dialogue.
Those of us who value dialogue must also value freedom of thought and expression. Such freedoms have never existed in any society by default. It is necessary that each generation fight to preserve them. Citizens in North America, Western Europe, and a smattering of other countries claim these freedoms today because previous generations fought for them, sometimes at great cost. Most parts of Asia, Africa, Latin America and, certainly, the Middle East do not have anything approximating these freedoms.
If we take our ideals, passions, and work as mediators and peace builders seriously, we should ensure that the conditions necessary for the fruitful practice of our field not be whittled away by manipulative fundamentalists, apologists for repressive ideologies, or by well meaning but confused multi-culturists, or weak-kneed and cynical politicians.
Executive Director, Meta-Culture, Bangalore, India