The Indian posterity, in 10 years will be reading many books and articles about the suppression of freedom of speech and expression during the Modi regime. Go talk to any liberal today, pick up any liberal newspaper, any hint otherwise would be highly surprising. The tone is similar – “we have a right wing government at the centre which is hell bent on suppressing individual liberties, by any means necessary and at any cost whatsoever”. While such agitations aren’t unfounded, what the liberal intelligentsia of India and what the common folks also, in general, miss out is how this problem is not a unique problem of ideology, but a constitutional, an institutional and hence, a major Indian problem, that dates back to our independence. It is almost hysterical, this liberal alarm ringing and should be read more cautiously if we are interested in solving the problem of freedom of speech at all, in this country.
In America, there is the rise of a ideologically and professionally variant group, largely called the Intellectual Dark Web, which comprises of both liberal and conservative politicians, academicians, lawyers, businesspeople, journalists etc. who claim themselves as the last sensible defenders of free speech in America. Although that is certainly a Caesarean proclamation, the group’s birth is timely and much belated. They are no group of extraordinary thinkers like the Enlightenment thinkers, they have nothing new to say, just repetitions of same old core viewpoints of both conservatism and liberalism – that one must, in a democratic society, have the free expression of speech and the liberty to dissent and also, crucially, the liberty to disagree, the liberty to offend in order to dissent. Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris feature on the academic circle front of the group, all very controversial thinkers of their times, the Weinstein brothers feature on the businesspeople front, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan and Bari Weiss on the journalist front and people who aren’t aware of their inclusion might even include President Trump – after all, he speaks his mind. Their claims although stale, are crucial in understanding the dislike of liberalism in the West. They claim that liberals or as they very disparagingly call the “social justice warriors” are consciously trying to suppress free speech of the conservatives in American university spaces and even media and political spaces. There is very little to argue on that because that is in fact a reality – people facing backlash or getting fired from jobs for making “politically incorrect” remarks has almost become the norm nowadays.
The reason why so many people across all generations, colours and sexes are flocking to the views of the Intellectual Dark Web is because they find this liberal cry for political correctness hollow, deeply undemocratic and ineffective. That is also one of the reasons why people in America are still willing to support a lunatic like Trump, because he is the manifestation of the much belated catharsis against such political correctness – he is the antithesis of political correctness. But where have liberals gone wrong? After all, wasn’t freedom of speech one of the prime motifs of the liberal agenda? Yes, and if fact, it still is, since all such knee-jerk reactions are even denounced by the liberals themselves. Noam Chomsky, extending the Voltairean thought of free speech wrote that “if we don’t believe in the freedom of speech of the people we hate or disagree with, we don’t believe in it at all.” The controversial Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek also has been very critical of political correctness, and since then, has been almost banished by the Western academia and media, only to prove his point. And this is despite the fact that in developed countries like the USA, there exists strong institutional and legal frameworks which protect free speech fiercely.
There are three very recent incidents in India that come to mind – firstly the academicians and the activists who have been arrested for their alleged Maoist links under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, second and third involve the silencing of cricketers, Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul for their alleged sexist remarks on a talk show and of people who criticised or joked about the Pulwama attack. All these incidents are an alarming reminder to us why we must better our freedom of speech structure in our country.
Like it or not, but political correctness doesn’t have any significant impact on the progress of a country, and I don’t mean just in terms of statistics. Political correctness, as Zizek points out in his book Violence is a forced and fake form of politeness and kindness. Of course the intentions are all good, but so were the intentions of all communists of Soviet Union and China good. Banning or firing or suspending someone for not speaking the ‘commonly accepted phrases and sentences’ firstly, doesn’t help the real social problems of inequality, of poverty, bad sanitation, and secondly, but worse, political correctness has largely come to be accepted only to be an escape pod to these harsh realities of our society. What good will it do for a billionaire to ask his maid to not use certain phrases or words which he deems offensive when he himself is the one oppressing her? In the real stage of social injustices, these words mean nothing to the people who are oppressed. In fact, one could argue that political correctness is also a form of oppression since it requires that the people in the lower ranks of a society speak not just the language, but also the particular phrases and words of the elites who oppress them. This was the problem with the hysterical reaction to the Hardik Pandya controversy, a cricketer who holds no public office (and hence isn’t officially accountable to the public), with not the most promising background in academics, and was shunned for remarks which were no doubt inappropriate but were nowhere near to inciting hatred or any ‘imminent danger’, as has been come to be accepted by the Supreme Court of India in its cases of Government of A.P. v. P. Laxmi Devi (2008) and Sri Indra Das v. State of Assam (2011). The suspension of employees who posted ‘offensive’ posts in the wake of the Pulwama attack follow the same pattern.
The second and the most serious claim against political correctness is that it is slowly leading us to a shadow totalitarian state – of liberalism. One of the marked distinctions of human beings from other animals is our capability to communicate very complex ideas through the medium of language. Language hence is crucial to our survival and evolution and any attempt at having monopoly over it or controlling it must be opposed. Political correctness is embedded in our Constitution, in the ‘reasonable restrictions’ clause of Article 19 and hence has come to be abused multiple times by people in power. It is naïve to singularly blame the Modi regime or its ideology for coming up with terms like ‘anti-national’ and ‘urban-Naxals’. After all, let’s not forget that it was Indira Gandhi’s Congress, a left leaning party which first tried introducing the term ‘anti-national’ into the Constitution by way of the infamous 42nd Constitutional Amendment. One of the first ‘anti-nationals’ back then was Dr. Subramanium Swamy, much to anybody’s surprise today. That proves only one thing: that power will be abused irrespective of ideology when there are no strictures of law protecting the citizens of a country from such oppression. The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act is draconian and it is shameful that it should exist today, but it is only a natural extension of the embedded political correctness in our Constitution which gives much leeway to power for abuse. Even institutions like the Censor Board have made a joke of the art of filmmaking, choking ideas at its birth and so has criminal defamation done the same with respect to journalism in India. Power has been given too much of a leeway with respect to free speech by the law and its institutions.
But if liberals are to agree that political correctness must be used to ban or fire people and make people’s lives hell, such as in the specific cases of Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul, they must also acknowledge the fact that they’re using their privilege in the society to make that claim and hence they must also allow that privilege of political correctness to the people in power, like Modi to jail activists for speech that power deems as ‘offensive’. The main idea behind free speech is to be able to question power, not to oppress people. What we are witnessing currently is not just vertical oppression but also horizontal oppression – the oppression of people by people of similar status for not speaking the language they approve of. Nobody has the right, in a democratic society to tell people what to speak and how to speak. Telling people what to speak is also telling people how to think.
Political correctness, like communism has good intentions no doubt, but is an ideology that is bound to have terrible repercussions in a society and will falter because of its inherent contradictions and hypocrisies. It tends to choke people’s thoughts and ideas, which happens only in a totalitarian state. There will be ideas, at a time which will appear as grossly offensive but that is the entire idea of dissent – that it seeks to dismantle the tyranny of majority. After all, how are we any different from the Kings and totalitarian rules who hung the poet, and the thinker and the scientist for offending their intelligence, for daring to search for the truth. As George Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, “if liberty means anything at all, it is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” We must be open to debate if we are serious about preserving liberalism.
Swagat Baruah is writer/editor for Catharsis Magazine.