December 6, 2007Public Policy

On putting an end to competitive intolerance

It is impractical for India to protect everyone from being offended. So it shouldn’t

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn.

If the phenomenon of competitive intolerance is akin to an arms race, then what can we say about bringing it to an end? That’s a practical question that should interest policymakers. It is, of course, possible to make a perfectly reasonable case (like Amit Varma and Salil Tripathi) that free speech is a fundamental human right, is non-negotiable and India can never be said to be completely free until all constitutional and legal impediments to free speech are dismantled. However, since much of the justification for constitutional and legal curbs on the freedom of expression is due to arguments of public interest and welfare’, it is important to examine whether those assumptions are valid.

The argument boils down to this: it is a good idea to seek a balance between freedom of expression and maintenance of law & order. But the fact is that the balance has always come at the cost of freedom of expression, especially in recent times. Writers usually suffer, while rioters often get away (see Amit Varma’s column). In other words, once the intolerant realised that there were positive returns to be had for their intolerance, the arms race accelerated. The argument of for balance was lost when the arms race started, for every escalation in the race is uniformly an assault on freedom of expression. India has travelled a long way from banning the Satanic Verses to the (possible) banning the forwarding of Sardarji jokes by SMS.

The balance’ argument fails not merely at an intellectual-philosophical level, but on the ground. It works this way: Faced with a choice between expelling an offending writer or facing down a mob of rioters, it is likely that a rational district magistrate or police superintendent will choose the former. And it works this way because the magistrate or superintendent has a choice.

This week’s Economist has a report on Oxford Union’s decision to invite a White supremacist politician and a Nazi apologist for a debate. This, naturally, attracted a lot of opposition:

On balance, however, the Oxford Union members who had voted to stage the debate had a better case. Free speech, they argued, is like a muscle which needs to be exercised to remain useful; the extremes of its terrain must be staked out to stop it shrinking. That seems a better attitude than Austria’s, which by imprisoning Mr Irving boosted his notoriety (and his appeal to the Oxford Union). It is also preferable to that of the British government, which pursues the impossible goal of protecting the feelings of Muslims, gays and other groups who officially loathe each other. [The Economist]

Like in any arms race, there are two stable states in the game of competitive intolerance: first, when no player is intolerant; and second, when every player is intolerant. But the first option is not available to India. A lot of water has already flowed under the bridge. Unsurprisingly, as borne out by current events, we are rushing headlong towards the second.

It stands to reason, as The Economist argues, that attempting to protect everyone from being offended is futile. In fact it is becoming clear that violence will continue to the extent that the violent know there is space to get the government to do their bidding.

The upshot is that doing away with restraints to freedom of expression—and taking the American constitutional route to free speech—is not merely a matter of principle. It is a practical necessity. Going after the rioter is the only way to maintain law & order. Because India is a mindbogglingly diverse society. That district magistrate, police superintendent or any of their political masters should not have a choice.

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