While in the life and times of internet democracy

30 04 2013

The culture shock

April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire,stirring
dull roots with spring rain.

  • T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

April is the cruelest month even in the romanticised narratives surrounding a university campus in India. The scorching sun, the sweat and the pangs of the imminent separation, gels well even in a dry technical institution like mine. As some nostalgia mongers would cry, gone is the age when writing autographs with the ink of blood and tears, or long silent walks, and confessions used to be fashionable. There is more expression of passion than before. The scenes of couples kissing and spending long hours in the open benches during the late hours of the night has predictably not gone well with the conservative majority who calls the shot, and various theories of western cultural invasion are in the air. After all, isn’t public display of affection, a vulgar thing? Isn’t young people making choices about their lives the most horrendous crime? The great Indian values!!…. The list of complaints are endless, predictable and utterly boring! More often, I get into the dilemma as to whether pacify the outpourings with the Zen guru’s story or engage in a frontal attack, both of which on reflection are ineffective in making people view issue from a historical perspective.

While it has to be acknowledged that the liberal values that dominate the western social life has profoundly influenced our youth who had been brought up in an insular world, it is no more than the cultural renaissance of the 50’s and 60’s that challenged the then caste and ritualism dominated social life to a certain extend. What is happening has to be seen as Indian middle class’  new tryst with the modernity, in the backdrop of an information age. Most people won’t appreciate me in saying this. But I’m calling a spade what it is- it is democracy, the same word that we love to pay eulogy to, hardly realising its implication or appreciating the progress it brings.

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting

  • Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The oddest thing about human existence is that even while living inside a glass house of ideas, each bit transparent down to the core and with clear contours revealing the aesthetics, we love to live oblivious of the obviousness of those cores and contours. Democracy has become the most well established idea of governance by the end of the last century and it has progressed beyond being just the name of a system. Its structure, form and dynamics evolved to a great deal of sophistication, as to reject every notion of pure majoritarianism. The ideas pertaining to maximisation of liberty within a broad democratic frame work underwent several evolutionary twists and turns, much to the same extend the idea of liberty changed through John Locke to John Stuart Mill. Yet, the modern idea of democracy is also strange in the sense that it has also become a whipping boy. It is that monster our rulers, the old guards- the nexus of religion, cultural conservatives and power brokers, the privileged and many economists remind day in and out, to be a very dangerous one (to be taken with great caution and dilution), all the while when it has become an individual’s best safeguard against oppression in a world where nation states, religion and capital have imposed their hegemony.

The fourth wave

The 21st century began with the outbreak of a phenomena that triggered the largest and the fastest process of democratisation in the history of the world. The internet. Unlike the previous waves which more often were local, this phenomena presented a unique opportunity- to get exposed to vast quantities of information, ideas, perspectives, narratives and a possibility of engaging in dialogue; things which were hitherto unknown to people in the scale it presented. And on the proverbial flip side, it has the ability to arouse the passions over controversial issues, pump in large quantities of misinformation and even wrongfully target individuals or groups with propaganda machines. We stand at an important juncture in history, where the turn we take on dealing with this phenomena will decide our future course in a very substantial way. Yet, the whole current debate is unfortunately centred around a peripheral, though admittedly important, question of the control of internet and information. Once again the paradigm shift in the dynamics of power has worried the ones who ought to be worried, and therefore the expected “dangerous internet” memes have spread out fast and wide.

Internet has brought changes in the cultural sensibilities of people at large, and has even created a certain level playing ground in the world of ideas. But instead of creatively engaging with it, the old guard has chosen to repress and censor it under various guises. Let me just mention a few recent instances.

A recent news piece reported by Media one, aroused my curiosity. The title says ‘Will the social media be captured by terrorists/fundamentalists?’. The article brings into light the ridiculous bans that a group called Free Thinkers(സ്വതന്ത്ര ചിന്തകര്‍)(40000+ member group, from Kerala) faced due to the planned effort by a chunk of people, presumably fundamentalists. Then it asks whether we will have to ban twitter and facebook, like porn sites. I appreciate Media one for bringing this news, albeit not mentioning that most (though not all) of the heated debates inside the group were surrounding Quran with superiority claims brought forward mostly by Islamic evangelists as the starting point, and staunchly argued against by the non-religious and secular people within the group. Let us leave that part for now and concentrate on the interesting perspective it presents. It has all the hallmarks of the old guard paternalism. Then we have the worried Indian citizens complaining to the court to disallow children under 18 (!) to access face book and twitter. Some moralists are so bothered about pornography that they want to make watching it illegal and a non bailable offence (pray tell me how are you going to establish something is porn without watching and therefore committing the same crime). It is shocking that ban is showcased as a reasonable consensus, whether the question is that of pornography or people having fake ids (as if all people are stupid enough to take every social media message at face value). It also makes one wonder whether all that has happened in this era is proliferation of pornography and frauds!

Both the old guards and Govt. want the same thing- regulate and control internet. What they do not want to admit is that, they are more bothered about ideas it generate, and the democratisation it is unleashing. We hardly see mainstream media or Government giving credit to internet for the faster spread and penetration of news. Rarely do we see appreciation, or at least acknowledgement, in so far as bringing more discussions on subaltern perspectives or the gender issues, which were confined to a hallowed circle of periodicals controlled by intellectuals with definite ideologies. The unprecedented growth and diversity in film appreciation, short film production, photography and various creative arenas of self expression, are invisible or irrelevant to them. The mainstream media domination in providing news and perspectives are no longer stable. The fact that slowly, but steadily, a significant percentage of youth, mostly from the middle class, is also criticising the old cultural ethos, is unsettling them. The power hierarchies are challenged at some level.

The need for a paradigm shift

I’m going to tell you a number of things about being a reporter, but of all the things I’m going to tell you, remember two words. Governments lie. It’s a good starting point.

  • I. F. Stone, narrated by Howard Zinn.

The Governments and, in most cases their dependable compatriots, the old guards, want “irresponsible” speech and expression, regulated. And we all know what responsible means, don’t we? Of course, responsibility has to be what they define it as!

They have draconian provisions like 66(A) of the Indian IT act, up on which no proper discussion is conducted in the mostly sold out mainstream media. But why are they so much worried? In fact, the reason is that they know that Anna Hazzares are entertainment variety with no real fangs, but with the penetration of social media and more people becoming computer literate, information cannot be controlled. This fact is not too much to the advantage of terrorists as it is to the disadvantage of Governments and the old guards. But more often we are warned about “terrorist” threat to justify the need for Government censorship of information, and the sleazy we are all for “freedom of expression, but” talk by the people who are too scared about it. Any person with half a brain can make out the double talk here. We have an unbelievable number of RTI activists murdered over the years and the Government as usual payslip service with “we strongly condemn this, but sorry we do not have adequate police force”. Let us not be delusional in thinking that Governments want transparency– actually it is what most of them do not want. But citizens want that, and the best way is to have no blocks on information or expression.

Sir Humphrey Appleby : It is only totalitarian governments that suppress facts. In this country we simply take a democratic decision not to publish them

  • Jonathan Lynn, Yes Minister.

What kind of a world we want to live in depends up on what discussions holds sway now. If we let go the baggage of the nauseating paternalistic culture, and allow democritisation a chance, we might still have many problems to be dealt in future, but we can be sure that people will have some ideas to solve them. The other option of maintaining the status quo with the culture, the religions and the interests of powers that be, and they having control over individual life, is at best an Ostrich solution. The choice is ours.

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The elephant in the room: A case for free expression

25 04 2013

Articulation and argumentation are not everyone’s forte, but at some level, expression is. If there is any area where the idea of equality can be pursued both in words and spirit with no ifs and buts (I do not mean to say that equality is meaningless in other areas), it is in expression- of ideas, emotions and information. But more often we hear self-proclaimed pundits to ordinary people paying eulogies to “freedom of expression” with the cliché ‘I’m all for free expression, but not hurting other people‘. If you ask me, those are in deed nice sounding words, but may I also add, thoroughly inconsistent and utterly stupid!

In fact, most self-identified supporters of free expression sitting on a but, are not even arguing for it. They are arguing for a case of “freedom of inoffensive expression”- the freedom to express things that we generally agree up on. Some people might defend that position by a play of semantics. They define legitimate free expression as every form that we can, at the very least, agree to disagree up on. But is that, really a freedom? These grand narratives surrounding the topic has obfuscated the issue so much that the debates are condemned to be beating around the bushes. In this context, I would like to imagine myself as taking the stand of that little kid on the street shouting, emperor has no clothes, dangerous though it is.

The case for inoffensive expression

The often argued case for limited expression, or freedom for inoffensive expression, is based on consequential logic. Expressions, be it speech, art, writing, video or Internet based, can and every often do, lead to conflicts. Fake informations, biased perspectives, religious blasphemy, artistic critiques or eroticism, are hot beds for provoking violent action. Some variety can cause real and tangible harm for individuals. Slander is a versatile tool for tarnishing the reputation of an individual. Therefore, it is better to censor expression which can fall into these category, is the logic employed here. In most democratic countries there is a well defined judicial procedure for appealing against such censorships and more often they involve more than one person and level. Hence, the right for “legitimate” expression can be safeguarded. This narrative also appeals to the fact that not all people are rational, and therefore the society at large should not have to bear the brunt, because people may not be able to rationally engage with each other on controversial issues or points where they disagree.

The case seems to be a solid one. At least, I too shared the same opinion for a long time. But then what is the problem?

Even at a cursory analysis, we find historical contradictions to the argument that ‘legitimate’ expression can and will be preserved. How often have we found legitimate expressions being trampled and even penalised by death, in questions of slavery, caste based oppression, religious critique, women’s rights, to the extend of telling that earth is not the centre of the universe. Democratic or not, societies by and large are conservative when it comes to accepting new ideas. The legitimacy of expressions are most often judged from the prevailing conservative stand point of a society. An idea that should be clear even for a  no-brainer , that  marital rape should be penalised, is a matter of joke for most of the honourable parliamentarians. Consider a more controversial critique, this time of the Government.  Perhaps about the Indian state itself. How logical is it to expect the very agents of state to make a fair judgement about its legitimacy? That would be,  if I borrow the usage of Sir Humphrey Applebee from the Yes Minister, like giving a bottle of whisky to an alcoholic.

In cases where courts have held up freedom of speech, expression and conscience, and the higher courts in India most often have, they based it on a constitutional principle and not by assessing the quality of the expression. This precedent should be firmly established by taking away the judgemental aspect altogether. This principle need to applied in amending the draconian provisions in the article 66(A) of the Indian IT act.

Limited freedom of expression, goes against the progress of societies. When certain ideas are taboo, whether or not people are rational, it does no good to anybody. What societies should strive is to encourage that maturity to deal with various expressions. Blanket bans and censorships are never the way forward. For instance, a homophobic man (which unfortunately includes the majority of Indians) might find the expression of gay sexuality vulgar and unacceptable. The orthodox bullies within every religion would like to ban it. Is that a sufficient reason to limit the freedom of expression of the gay community?

Every novel idea, every artistic expression that tries to engage with its audience and every bit of concealed truth are blasphemous entities for some people or other. Hence questions are raised about teaching evolution, M. F. Hussain’s painting and Aseem Trivedi’s cartoon, Arundhati Roy’s opinion on Kashmir and Wikileaks, and they should be. But whatever one’s opinion regarding these are, the alternative possibility of censoring these will only drag us back to the Dark ages.

What about the real or potential harm caused by spreading lies?

The pre-eminent British Parliamentarian and the first editor of Manchester guardian (the present ‘Guardian’ newspaper) C. P. Scott had these famous words to offer on the question of media ethics:

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

This statement applies to more than mass media. In fact, any public expression can be challenged based on the veracity of the facts it presents. Spreading wrong information deliberately can be effectively challenged and penalised, by individuals or groups including Government, with the current laws itself. If a newspaper can be charged for publishing wrong information, so can an individual be. The case of “misuse of free expression” is over stated, and even if they happen pre-emptive bans cannot be justified. In fact, we have seen instances when the unfortunate provision of pre-emptive bans was effectively used by people who think beyond to silence criticism.

I hate, ‘hate speech’. It could get people killed!

So do I, and some of them have the potential to kill. Unfortunately that is not a sufficient ground to ban it. i.e. we can only punish real crimes, not potential crimes .

How do we decide whether something is hateful or an opinion, not necessarily right, based on certain facts or experiences? What makes a person shouting “I hate America” in India passable, while somebody with a placard “I hate Hindus” unacceptable? What makes Bal Thackarey’s editorial in Samna about “Hindus not being vigorous enough” during the 1992 riots inoffensive for a majority, while Abdul Nassar Madani’s alleged “call for arms” unacceptable? We, like all establishments, have double standards in deciding what is hateful and what is not. It does not surprise me, although it does sadden me, that such biases exist for neutrality over emotionally charged issues are rare, if not non-existent. What can certainly be done is maintaining a principled position that every person will have to bear the consequence of his or her public expression. If a call for arms can be linked to a riot, and police need to be prepared for it, the person has to be charged for abetting violence and murder. Call for violence, whether the reason be xenophobia, casteism, ethnic divide, religious bigotry, ideological schism or personal vendetta, has to be charged at the point of action like any other crimes or else we end up in the same situation described in the famous Spielberg film Minority report.

I’m hurt!

I’m sure you did. But, you know what, deal with it! There is no right to remain unoffended. There are millions of issues up on which every single individual is going to hurt others by expressing one’s opinion. A cartoon might hurt Mamta Bannerjee, challenging his Gujarat story might hurt Modi, Salman Rushdie, Taslima Nasrin, M. F. Hussain, Nikos Kazantzakis or Sanal Edamaraku might ‘hurt’ many faithful and so on and so forth. I could even argue that “religion” hurts me. Does that give me a right to call for ban on news about poojas in temple, the azaan call or the notice of Sunday mass in a church?

The case for free expression is the proverbial elephant in the room. Everybody can see that, but certain cultural, religious or ideological upbringings make most people argue against it. It has to be noted that in countries like USA, the first amendment act is considered as one of the most important constitutional safeguards. Despite strong provisions to protect free speech, most European countries and America do not have riots over free expressions, to the extend we have in India. In a Christian majority country, the piss Christ is tolerated (as in not legally persecuted) and that is a sign of maturity and not cultural inferiority as some of our-great-culture ideologues project it as. I would like to end with the concluding remarks from Salman Rushdie’s speech at India Conclave 2012.

“The human being, let’s remember, is essentially a language animal. We are a creature which has always used language to express our most profound feelings and we are nothing without our language. The attempt to silence our tongue is not only censorship. It’s also an existential crime about the kind of species that we are.

We are a species which requires to speak, and we must not be silenced. Language itself is a liberty and please, do not let the battle for this liberty be lost.”

Entry for The Colloquium Blogjam





Free speech: we need it goddamn free!

4 04 2013

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Several oxymorons have captured popular imagination. Oxymorons are wonderful things. Some of them are interesting social memes with a concealed surreal parody, while appearing as a outpouring emotional drama. In recent times, my favourite one happened to be the word ultra secularist, referring to Awami League in Bangladesh. Actually that is more of a pathetic joke, invented by people with hardly any sense of humour. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, never mind. If you are persistent, please go and have a sneak peak at what has been going on in Bangladesh) .Then there are my perennial favourites – militant atheist and fundamentalist atheist- both of which I cherish and hope to remain worthy of, till I die. Having said that, I like the idea of people using oxymorons, since more than anything they exemplify the idea of free speech and expression. Freedom is worthless until it also involves the freedom to be wrong; even hopelessly wrong.

The odes in favour for an intrinsically lazy and incorrigibly dreamy man like me turning into an armchair activist for free speech should have been quite low. But then as the wise saying goes, your opponent choses the weapon for you. When morons of the lowest order with a penchant for imposing their medieval mindsets are demanding respect and shouting we are hurt at the drop of a hat, I fear a retrograde evolution from man to old world apes is in the pipeline and so the unpleasant truth be told. So, sorry to break this to you guys, there is no such thing as a right to remain unoffended. Be my guest and be offended by reading this, but there will be no donuts for you.

After the social media proliferation what followed was a wave of chaotic incidents- nonsensical cyber laws, then bans, curbs, censorships and even arrests for voicing one’s opinion. Attempt to control information and opinions is not a new phenomena, but with the greatest democratization of information unleashing itself, if anything can regress or even repeal the human progress, it will be the ones who want to stop discussions, debates, criticisms and even mocking of ideas. We always had those real and wannabe big brothers, but this time they might just be too powerful.

It all spiraled down after a Julian Assange– the dirty cables and nation states playing the tug off war to get the better of him. And then the Arab spring, sprung up. It started with hope and ended mostly in despair with the fringe elements who want the democratic rights of women curtailed, running the show. We saw the mobocracy in action and an almighty emperor play right here in India when young girls were arrested for making harmless comments on the eve of India’s ever green fascist Bal Thackarey’s death, and tweets about a union minister’s son lead to an arrest. The Shahbagh square protest happened and in the after math, like the second repetition of history as a farce, Atheist bloggers who had been tortured by the Islamic fundamentalists, have been arrested by the Bangladeshi police and their conviction might lead to a 10 year jail sentence. In short we might well be living in an Orwellian nightmare any time soon, if we already are not in one.

free speech

New events are unfolding every day. When people need to face arrests for face book likes, satires, magazine articles or even statutory body notifications can be blocked by bullies who can think beyond everything (especially logic), and mocking or criticizing the almighty gods (well, it seems they do not have so much power in the cyber world and hence believers need to act on their behalf) or even politicians whose parliamentary language are matters of legends, can lead to serious charges, we better not be kidding ourselves. But the worse part is that whenever the discussion about freedom of expression comes up, people spread it out and try to make it unnecessarily complicated. While I do acknowledge that words or expressions might harm people any attempt on pre-emptive bans or censorships are never the way forward. They are both illogical and regressive. If a harm is tangible, it should be dealt as a civil case. If it is psychological, it should be dealt as a harassment case. We have no dearth of provisions to do this, but governments and pressure groups want to create a monstrous law which is comparable to the emergency period.

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Presently we face an unfortunate situation where narrow interest groups, often supported by Govt’s are taking it to the heights of absurdity by curbing expression or worse, giving impunity to ideas . We have witnessed this pandering of the ‘we are hurt’ syndrome during the Vishwaroopam controvertsy and even the latest case of arresting bloggers in Bangladesh. The case of arresting Atheists is particularly of concern since, it is a direct display of fanatic zeal. No religion or ideology is beyond criticism. If an imaginary religious or ideological group called Leprechronians have a problem with the flying sphaghetti monsterists (Pastafarians) criticising or mocking their Leprechronian theology, they better be prepared to deal with it in kind. That applies equally to any historical or mythological character.

I started with oxymorons, so let me conclude with it. Free speech need to be goddamn free. There is no freedom or free will, if a personal God exist. Even if he hates it, he knew you would have spoken that being omniscient. But that metaphor is important, since it emphasizes the real freedom– freedom to go wrong. And that is a lot more worthy than the hurts caused by sharp or at times maliganant criticism. We desperately need it to explore, create and even expunge ideas.

 





OUR CONFORMITY PROBLEM

3 04 2013

As a young nation our saga has never been very impressive. Yes, we did move ahead from being a newly independent nation plagued by extreme poverty and schisms based on religion, caste and linguistic identities in 1947. The geopolitical situation were never to our advantage, nor were we particularly known for our enterprise or hard work. We somehow scraped through without being a big time failure which might be something compared to some of our neighbours,  but hardly an achievement to boast about. It is not poverty, corruption, casteism, religious/linguistic divide which have been the ultimate road blocks in our path. These or similar problems existed in every nation and society, and do not have quick fixes. The chains that have dragged our progress is deep rooted in our mindset. We have a serious herd mentality problem; a combination of extreme paternalism and a misplaced pride in our culture.

I had the opportunity to have a chit chat with a faculty member of my institute who was quite pleasing and open to discussion. The topic came to why not allow inmates to decide the rules for the girls hostel as is done in some other national institutes. He remarked that people will be uncomfortable with that because we do not have that individualist culture. He was right about the fact that at least some people will be uncomfortable. But the question we fail to address is why. I find it funny that as a 30 year old man, who chose his life partner, I am supposed to eat the food that is virtually decided by my institute. We are so addicted to making rules for others and imposing conformity, that people cannot even imagine giving freedom supplemented with responsibility. Our institutes fail to get at par with the best in world precisely because of our prevailing culture that does not nurture creativity and value individuality. On top of it, we have an even more serious problem of imposing a view or identity over unwilling people.

This attitude problem has far reaching consequences. We were unable to get rid of casteism and petty regionalism in more than 65 years because most parents want to choose the bride or groom for their son or daughter. This system is so prevalent that people take it for granted and we might even find people arguing that it is their “right” to decide on behalf of their adult son or daughter. They want their children to think and behave like them in every respect. A man and woman interacting in a public space raises eyebrows in most places, for the stereotypes of “good woman” is the one who do not keep much of a male company except for her father or husband, and the society does not believe that it is a private affair that they need not poke their fine nose into. We have a long pathetic list of social codes and yet we have one of the worst level of adherence when it comes to law.

The fact that our bureaucracy is one of the most sluggish in the world in terms of performance is often looked from the public vs private angle. But our private sector too is not free from the same vices is something pundits choose to ignore. How many innovative ideas have Indian industries come up with in the post liberalisation era? They did create more employment opportunities, but hardly used the talents of a population whose median age is around 25. How do we address the fact that industries in social democracies like Norway, Sweden or Finland have much more to show in comparison with us. We find the same complacency of the public sector reappearing in our private sector albeit in a different form. Other than making things easy for the financial markets and therefore allowing greater speculation, the often hyped reforms have done nothing to promote or facilitate ideas, or better products.

It is high time that we relieve ourselves from the burden of this great Indian culture. Like every other civilization in the world, we too had our heyday. But we are neither unique, nor superior. If anything, our rules of engagement which gives primacy to the group identity, is regressive. We should realize that not everyone has to be according to our cultural prescription, but they only need to be fair and just in dealing with others. The emphasis on conformity rather than creativity is virtually killing this nation. It is time to change this obnoxious condescending attitude for once and all.