Prufrock's Page

Friday, May 26, 2006

Freeing Freedom Of Expression

Those who want to watch Fanaa will find a way, whether in Gujarat or elsewhere. Those who want to watch The Da Vinci Code will watch it too, be they in Punjab or not. Those who want to read James Laine will read his books, in Maharashtra or not. And indeed, those who want to read The Satanic Verses or Nine Hours to Rama will make sure they do so. As Goran Rosenberg says in his Eurozine article, "communications technology has made it possible for any expression, from any cave or cellar anywhere in the world, produced with any kind of intention, to instantly present itself in the public arena of any society in the world."

He continues: "Freedom of expression without common public spheres and common informal agreements will...produce and intensify social and cultural conflicts. When citizens are unable to talk to and with each other, or see no need to do so, they will increasingly talk past and against each other, and thereby will increasingly misunderstand and mistrust each other. Freedom of expression will thus be rendered useless for the kind of public discourse that is the oxygen of democracy...the main challenge to the freedom of expression is the lack of informal controls and agreements, a result of the rapid division of our societies into separate public spheres that no longer communicate with each other, and that therefore cannot work out any informal agreements about how public expressions might or might not be understood."

Playright Tom Stoppard echoes this when he writes of free speech that "it is not an absolute to be claimed for any and every position. It will prevail when we accord it. The rules are ours to make, and to modify for different situations."

It's precisely that unwritten code -- "the informal controls and agreements" -- which defines freedom of expression, and which we seem to lack. Of course, in order to start putting this into place, one needs a retreat from extremist positions and political jerrymandering. It's time to bring Amartya Sen's 'argumentative Indian' thesis into the current age.


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