Illegitimate or Legitimate- Some Questions about Freedom.

12 03 2006

  • Are the editorial cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Muhammad published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten illegitimate forms of expression?
  • Does Iran possess the right to go nuclear?
  • Should pornography be banned?
  • Are homosexual marriages or intercourses legitimate?

Here are four distinct with very little obvious common grounds, yet equally controversial debates of the day. Can we address all these issues from the same platform? Or do they really share some common platform? Quite vague, isn’t it. Let us try.

Before getting on to the central theme, I would like to begin with a sketch of some of my personal experiences. It was during my 9th standard that I happened to watch a real pornographic movie from a video tape. I belonged to that comparatively privileged section of lower middle class with a VCP (Video Cassette Player) at home. A year later while in the 10th standard, we (my batch) had a unique educational session on a Saturday- a ‘sex education’ class. In a society were the word sex raises eyebrows of the common people and where any public discussion about the same is a social taboo, this happened to be a highly progressive move by a ‘Christian Missionary’ school management. More so, when we consider the historical fact that ‘Victorian moral codes’ were assimilated by the Indian (or Hindu) society due to the influence of Christian missionaries during the British Raj. But the class turned out to be a real boring session for us boys who had seen the ‘supposedly not to be seen during puberty’ things. A priest who was our ex-headmaster showed a video clip and a delivered a lecture. The evening session turned out to be a horror, since he virtually made it a church ceremony speech, holding Bible in his hands, chanting biblical statements and unending list of sermons. Naturally, the things least appreciated by 15 or 14 year old boys.

When I came to college (Christ college, Irinjalakuda) for my pre-degree course, the world around changed drastically. My teachers, especially the language lecturers, were more open minded so as to discuss many a social taboos at length. An enlightening period and more, a time when watching a porn movie was too easy a thing. It became a sort of adventurous spirit for us boys to watch an adult movie with friends in the nearby theatre. In Engineering College, during the first year, I got the ‘privilege’ to watch many from a computer in the hostel. My classmate Swaminathan (not the real name) brought his P.C. which became our ‘dream theatre’. Time went on shortly I, like most in our batch, got the confidence to speak about sex in front of any audience for a debate.

This quite naturally can be the story of any person, especially from India. But its obviousness shouldn’t inhibit us from pondering deep in it. The point is about the way convictions are born, the growth in thought and at the very fundamental level, the concept of freedom. In fact, all these ‘mischievous’ acts were arguably wrong for the society. But then, hardly have I known people who haven’t done any of these. At least the majority. This statement should not be translated as an argument against non requirement of any social controls. Far from it, this exactly is the social dynamics at work and the way society proceeds and so the alleged mischiefs of the day will probably become accepted moral or social code of the next generation. Now, deeper into that, then what exactly is a freedom? Who defines it and what should be the fundamental criterion for defining it?

Let me make my conclusions clear. Freedom can only be defined in the context of the existing social structure. Yes, I mean there exists no absolute freedom and will never. In fact, any ideal or entity can never be addressed from an absolute frame or coordinates. More so with respect to intangible things like ideals. Sartre put it right when he said, “freedom is what you do with what has been passed on to you.” We only create new spaces from the grounds created far before by our ancestors. And therefore social taboos are bound to exist in every society in all ages. Their character might change, but liberation is never a destiny in itself. It is only a process by which a person or society create more space for its existence. Now, the question is what should be the governing concept – if at all – which serves humanity better in its never ending quest through which ideals can be redefined? We all might have our own distinct opinions here. According to me, the governing concept for the present should be co-existence, nonaggression into others’ space and most importantly sustaining and perpetuating the known historical process of creating own space and extending it to unchartered arenas. This should also imply that we should grant sections which are historically lacking behind in this aspect, a decent amount of time to rearrange itself and others should make some positive input into it. Also, it is lack of historical foresightedness which often grips the ‘hot blooded mortals’ so as to argue for ‘freedom that he or she or it enjoys in a social setup’ to be imparted or forcefully applied at the same level and same time to a different social setup. Well, the former statement is not to be deemed as an absolute remark, it is a value judgment. The criterion whether or not a freedom prevailing in one society be existent in another should be subjectively analyzed based on the criterions mentioned earlier.

I believe that I have my premises clear. Now let us proceed with the issues. With respect to editorial cartoons published by the Danish newspaper, I do not consider it to be a genuine and positive freedom of expression. Again, I emphasize that this is from an existing social perspective. In fact, much more vulgar forms of expressions about Islam, Christianity or any religion or ideal exist in the cyber world. The issue comes also due to the accessibility and popularity of the print media. Also, the news that the same newspaper refused to publish some cartoons depicting Jesus is a clear double standard. I find it quite absurd for any person to attack alleged present misgivings of a sect by portraying their ‘prophet’ – a person who no longer exist and in fact dead before many centuries – in unnecessary and illegitimate ways. So the very social taboo that applies for Christianity should be extended to any other religion. What will it look like if one portrays, Jesus responsible for the misadventerous and immoral political barbarianism of George W Bush, who is a proclaimed follower of Christianity?

Next comes the most heated issue of violent retaliation in Islamic nations. As per the existing notion and consensus about freedom, the burning or Danish or European countries’ consulates are uncivilized and unnecessary. The refusal of Danish premier to meet diplomats of the Arab nations surely was the fuel to this fire. Now the retaliation is a consequence of the first affirmative action. The real freedom is when, a form of expression which portrays a totally different sect with different morals and ethos as barbarians and root of all evils while consciously neglecting the doings of some of the proponents of ‘total liberation’ in the same context, is socially banned (as against legally banned). This issue needs to be addressed in a broader dimension. Dr Madhukar Sukla’s blog, provides some valuable insight towards, social taboos in various countries. But we often value our premises too much as to totally ignore the perspective of the other person.

The question of Iran going nuclear is same. I am not going into the pros and cons of a nuclear umbrella, but rather the legitimacy of ‘equally or more treacherous nations’ to impose their law up on another nation. We are far from having an international consensus up on such issues. This basically is from the prevailing equations of power politics and greed of nations to enjoy more autonomy by indulging into hegemony. The concern of Iran’s prospective nuclear arsenal being the trump card of terrorist can be quite easily negotiated and much of rogue activities can be kept at bay once a common standard for freedom, acceptable for all is set. No such move happens to exist in the cards of parties concerned. So, my opinion is that, India should have abstained from voting at IAEA, for strategic reasons and as a beginning of a new diplomatic dialogue for better freedom of the whole world. From a centrist view about freedom of nation states, I do not think Iran’s nuclear policy is neither any lesser nor any more deplorable than the ones of the existing nuclear states.

After the debate about international politics, let me try to address the question of pornography from the stand. From own experiences, I believe it to be an issue to be left to the natural course. Which means, not to blow out of proportion since every emerging generation is defining its own liberties and exposure of children to pornography to be maintained as a social taboo until an encroachment of more deviant forms of sex (which are socially unacceptable) appears so that the issue takes a new dimension.
I maintain that explicit pornography is a better safety valve to illegitimate violent sexual acts from implicit pornography. It should also be noted that in ancient societies, sex was not this big a taboo as today. It was more the spirit of medieval Christianity which made it one and therefore in a fast paced world where information and misinformation travels with the velocity of light, pornography is a better option which need not be given an explicit consent at present at least.

Homosexuality, is an issue similar to the earlier one. Gay and Lesbian expressions are illegitimate in most societies while quite legal in many Scandinivian and other European counties and in States of US federation, it is legal. But here, the issue of natural taste is also involved. While as a person with natural sexual orientation, the gay expression could never arose my taste, it still should be deemed genuine by standards of freedom. If we argue from our present social context where a ‘love letter’ to another sex and consensual sexual intercourse is not a legal offense, I opine the same need be applied to this. The issue of social sanctity as marriage requires a time frame to be addressed. The point of not blowing it out of proportion still holds here. Society requires a time to adjust and therefore more liberal values require time to assimilate. But when it is a question of human rights, which the present and vocal international society has accepted as ideal, laws need be remade and in the process, some of the notions redefined.

Well, after this discussion spanning various issues, what I find is a need of understanding social dynamics which contributed and exist while defining freedom. I find the need of understanding the subjectivity and relativism in definitions among various societies quite pertinent. This is the sum total of this essay too. There need be a global consensus about freedom at large like the international charter of human rights. Such a move has a lot to contribute towards better peace and harmony among world nations and could possibly alleviate many an unnecessary ‘jihads’.

I would some up like this. The best example for a person to understand the nature and character of freedom its implication in real life situations is a retrospective of own’s life. Every person is sure to find instances of positive and negative social taboos in own past life. Whether or not an existing social taboo is futuristic, is again a moral judgement, but still we all can share at least some common grounds at a fundamental level. Why not redefine through a retrospective. I repeat – Liberation is a never ending process and not a destiny in itself. These words apply well to society as much as its philosophic connotations.

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