Freedom of expression and long noses

“I disapprove of what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”, this once revolutionary adage has now somewhat become a cultural cliché. This stance has preserved the culture of progress and tolerance of western societies for century now. But counter-revolutionary and somehow reactionary is the stance, “your freedom ends where my nose begins”, and the problem our world has is that some people have got really long noses.

Freedom of expression once enshrined the irrevocable right of the people to call to scrutiny the actions of the authority in any way they deem possible. It still remains the same but constant salvos are being fired at this doctrine. The doctrine which stands as a cornerstone in modern human civilization, and the unstoppable salvos may obscure the clearly defined percepts of this essential human right. Freedom of expression is important and fundamental but only when some limits are observed, or so some people claim. If you cross those limits, long noses starts flowing at any trigger of their sensitivity.

Freedom of expression is necessary as it is the only tool that ensures democracy, a system that restores humanity to the dignity it is bound to have. The dignity is closely knitted to the concept of offence. The critics of this doctrine toe the line that ‘form of expression’ be such that it does not violate the dignity of the people who are criticized.

The silver-lining here is that dignity is a concept associated with people. Maajid Nawaz goes a long way to differentiate between rights of ideas and rights of people. Ideas drive humans for good or bad. Ideas need to be scrutinized before letting it drive the fate of civilization. Satire, dry and trepid, provokes the ideas to walk into a terrain where the crux of ideas lay bare with all the façade that gives intricacies to the idea, perished. This in most cases gives the strength and consistency of the idea and manifests the ability of the idea to withstand any barrage of unfavorable comments and thus exposing the true character of the idea.

The distinction between criticism targeted at ideas and the criticism against people holding those ideas is a subtle one. The criticism aimed at ideas can spill over to the people holding those ideas. If all people holding the ideas are categorized into one category and by extension are criticized and, in some cases, rebuked just because they hold these ideas, qualifies as outright bigotry.

Humans have dignity, stereotyping them only on the basis of their ideology and ignoring other facets of human experience like social, political, cultural and civilizational, is to misread the right of freedom of expression. Criticizing ideas is not the same as criticizing the people following those ideas.

The Charlie Hebdo and Chappel Hill attacks were two very contrasting incidents: one a genuine attack on freedom of expression, the other a prospect for people sitting on the fence and jumping into the foray to launch thin-veiled attempts to curb freedom of expression and confuse criticism of ideas with hatred of people.

With this said let’s focus on the strains of thought that are employed to do away with this essential human right. The first one is that old silence inducing, all-forgiving and confusing doctrine of multiculturalism. Few people are allowed to avoid following the social and even legal norms just because they belong to another culture. Any attempt to regulate this errand behavior will be met with stern opposition as according to this doctrine it violates the sanctity of the other culture. France won its boundless right to criticize in the Cultural Revolution of 70s and the heterodoxy of then is the cultural establishment of today.

People with retrogressive beliefs are presented by some as the revolutionary equivalents of today. They forget that the struggle then was not for multiculturalism but for unabated right to criticize any kind of authority in any form. The struggle which they present as the equivalent of that struggle is for compromising those hard-won freedoms. The obvious inconsistency is that the concessions they are demanding goes against the spirit of their multiculturalism. After all why should the culture that demands respect not concede to the other culture that worships the right to disrespect any ideas that form the basis of authority?

The other aspect is of misapplying MacKinnon thesis, the thesis that states that granting legal equality and strengthening the right to freedom of expression results in disproportionate entitlements. Like the freedom of expression granted to KKK and the blacks will result in disproportionate strength for the KKK as it will help in further entrenching the established positions of the white supremacists. The catch here is that the unabated right to criticize authorities will expose the inequalities of the system and the rights to expression will lay bare the injustices of the system without the fear of reprisal and further suppression.

Now comes the popular egalitarian line of ‘offense’ defense, the suppression of the right in the name of not offending others. The right to criticize is closely tied to the right to offend. If the criticism does not offend, what is the purpose of exercising it? Moreover the offense is a subjective experience, one person’s line of taking offense may lie much farther away from the other person’s line of taking offense, and the relation between them is proportional to the length of one’s nose. Confronted with it, they throw another unassuming line, “your right to offend should not translate into a responsibility to offend”, harps the likes of Mehdi Hasan. This line translates into a list of dos and don’ts as “do not exercise your right of expression when you feel that it will offend a huge number of people”. This huge number is again a subjective one and is appropriated by some to conform to guidelines set by some form of civil authority. What the harpers of this line do not realize is that the right to feel offense should not translate into a “responsibility to take offense”. Yes one has a right to feel offended when the ideas they subscribe are criticized but their offense should not be triggered by any small and genuine exercise of the right to criticize.

If the length of the noses is properly calibrated, the urge to feel offended will be lowered by a long margin. Sadly long noses are an objective reality and compelled by habit, they will be poked into genuine exercise of freedom of expression.

Hurmat Ali Shah is a freelance writer interested in intersection of culture, politics and society. He can be reached at Follow him on Facebook