Freedom of speech: why does it matter?


Ashutosh shakta

Ashutosh shaktan, is a freelance photojournalist working on social issues and currently a fellow at India Habitat Centre, visual arts gallery.

From the age of unreason,
From the year of Big brother,
Delhi, 2016.

In 1859 in his classic ‘on liberty’ John Stuart Mill has addressed an important and interesting issue relating to the freedom of speech which totally fits in the context of the recent events happened in Jawahar lal Nehru university, Delhi and also strengthens the idea of freedom of expression for a better society of individuals:

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind. Were an opinion a personal possession of no value except to the owner; if to be obstructed in the enjoyment of it were simply a private injury, it would make some difference whether the injury was inflicted only on a few persons or on many. But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error over truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Here Mill has clearly defined the importance of freedom of expression and its sacredness that if an individual is not left to live as he wishes or to speak freely, civilization can not advance, the truth will not , for a lack of free market in ideas, come to light, there will be no scope of spontaneity, originality, genius, for mental energy, for moral courage. Society will be crushed by the weight of collective mediocrity. Whatever is rich and diversified will be crushed by the weight of the custom, by men’s constant tendency to conformity, which breeds only withered capacities, pinched and hidebound, cramped and dwarfed, human beings.

But here is the anomaly, according to the concept of free will, to do good, one has to have the possibility to do evil. Similarly for truth to be ‘truth’ there should be something ‘untruth’ and the untrue should be something which can be heard and can therefore be contested, and if a certain view is prevented from being expressed, there is no longer any discussion possible. That is how ‘dialogue’ is replaced by ‘monologue’. The perception of the existence of right and wrong, truth and false is therefore not only compatible with liberty, but fundamental to it, the main idea is to have a choice always and to have the freedom to choose among those choices. The freedom of speech is therefore the most essential thing for the development of a logical and reasonable society.

In a society which believes in the power of logic, reason and dialogue a person should always have the opportunity to say things that are wrong. The boundary which a society defines for the freedom of speech actually reflects how strong that society is. Wider the dialogue is, stronger that society is. And a stronger society can handle much more than a feeble one with narrow boundaries before the costly fabric of society collapses.

Whatever was said or not said in JNU I would not judge that on moral or any grounds, I may or may not approve it but yes I will stand for the right to express it. Freedom of expression can’t be traded in for the idea of nationalism itself and the idea of nationalism which our society (which is ill informed by some corporate run news channels) have shown in the previous few days is very dangerous, it is the same nationalism which made Germans massacre thousands of Jews 70 years back. A lot has already been said about this by many in the past including Tagore who denounced it by saying it as one of the humanity’s greatest problems.

Forget all this debate about freedom of expression and nationalism, for god’s sake it was an university, an institution of learning, where the idea of free thought should be as important as learning itself. And if, even the universities are also curbed of that right to discuss and debate freely then from where should we expect the future thinkers to come from?? RSS ?? Even the thought of that send chills down my spine.
This whole issue reminds me of the speech which Mario savio, leader of the freedom of speech movement in University of California, Berkeley delivered on December 2, 1964 and is known famously as ‘bodies upon the gears’ address where he asked the students not to be a bunch of raw materials later made into products and sold to some clients. Here is an excerpt from the speech:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels…upon the levers, upon all the apparatus and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine would be prevented from working at all!”

So there had been a lot of students’ protests in the past among which the uprisings of 1968 in France and the protests of 1968 and 1970 in America were quite famous and it was the time when we were still struggling for food in India (green revolution). That is not important but the point of fact is that, in any of these protests none of the students was termed anti national or a terrorist for voicing his/her opinion.
I don’t want to get into the role of Indian media in the whole issue though they have a very big role and call themselves the conscience keepers of nation but let me put it straight they are not, they are money mongers, running reality shows on tv on the name of news channels. That’s what they are.

In the end I just want to make an appeal to everyone reading this, Let this country not be a country of cowards but of brave people who can speak for themselves and for their thoughts. This is not just about Umar Khalid or kanahaiya kumar or JNU, this is about all those people who can think, it is about all those thoughts you are scared to speak out, it is about the color you are now scared to wear, it is about the food you are now scared to eat, it is about everything….just think about it.
Ashutosh Shaktan

Leave a Reply