We Indians, the kind who are on social media, and are politically aware and opinionated, are hypocrites. Or at least, when it comes to freedom of expression, we have largely been hypocritical. Compare the way we reacted to what happened at Charlie Hebdo, and the way we reacted to the preaching of the so called right-wing fringe back home. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, our tweets and Facebook posts had #JeSuisCharlie all over them.
We stood for freedom of expression and expressed solidarity with a magazine considered to be politically incorrect by many. “But so what if they were politically incorrect? How can someone curb their freedom of expression?” we asked. And when the fringe got rolling, we were shocked. “How can they talk this way? When will Modi reign them in?” we asked.
The truth is that we don’t really have an opinion when it comes to freedom of expression. If #JeSuisCharlie is the ‘in’ thing on social media, we join the bandwagon. If the mainstream Indian media goes after the fringe, our tolerance of political incorrectness goes out the window. We’re fence sitters, ready to jump ship according to circumstance. But who are we really? We’re the educated, politically aware Facebookers and twitterati of India.
It doesn’t really make a difference if extremist elements make politically incorrect statements in some part of the country. Even if it were personally offensive, it still doesn’t make a difference to us because their immaturity and ignorance is their loss, not ours. But yes, what if someone was to get offended, provoked, to such an extent that they become a potential threat to the country’s harmony?
It has happened in India before, so it seems like a good enough reason for us to support political correctness. Then again, it happened in Paris too. If we thought a section of our society was incapable of reacting to something offensive in a mature way, we saw second generation Mahgrebis in France were no better.
So if we were to shed our hypocrisy for once and try to come up with a uniform approach to freedom of expression, should we embrace political correctness or should we give people absolute freedom of expression? The reasons most people would opt for absolute freedom of expression are quite simple really. Firstly, political correctness is subjective, Absolute Freedom of expression is not.
Secondly, if a multi-cultural society like ours were to accept all points of view however radical they are, we would have much more of an open-minded, objective and dynamic public discourse. In fact, acceptance of all ideas, whatever they might be, was an important cornerstone of our civilization. And thirdly, those affected by the fringe are a miniscule minority. Often we forget that an overwhelming majority of our population is either mature, or too ignorant, or too helpless to create unrest in the community if somebody’s words sting them.
If we argue about the pros and cons of freedom of expression in a case like that of Charlie Hebdo’s, it is almost completely on a moral basis. But for most cases back home, there is a legal element too. Our constitution has laws against hate speeches, blasphemy and offensive electronic messages. It is quite surprising then that our mainstream media usually attacks political incorrectness on a moral basis rather than a legal basis, but that’s not the issue.
The question we need to ask ourselves is whether people who get offended by political incorrectness should be treated with kid gloves any longer. What most of us don’t realize is that the longer we keep these narrow minded elements in our society shielded from what they don’t like to hear, the more we feed their intolerance.
As long as these laws remain, their immaturity will persist because there is nothing to counter it. If our society officially encourages narrow mindedness, we cannot expect people to come out of it. That’s why people, including those of the right-wing fringe, should be allowed to say whatever the hell they want irrespective of political correctness.
No doubt we will face hurdles at first. No doubt the goal of creating an open-minded and fully tolerant society is mammoth endeavour. But every opportunity that we lose out on to take a step in the right direction drags us more backward.
By: Ajit Datta