A defence of and against offence
A series on world religions, the right to free speech, and the right to be offended–and how all three are linked
I was 15 when Bajrang Dal goons tried to smear saffron paint over M.F. Husain’s art. Free speech, censorship, tolerance and secularism were big words I didn’t fully understand then, but even I knew the Bajrang Dal was wrong and Husain had rights. By the time the Danish cartoons were banned, I was a vocal defender of free speech, but I found myself walking on eggshells in an attempt to be culturally sensitive. My reactions to the two are not separated only by age: I could openly support Husain against the Bajrang Dal, but when it came to the Danish cartoons, my reaction was muted by my own cultural identity and the need to tolerate; after all, I was Hindu.
The victim: The numerous attacks on artist M.F. Husain by Hindu fundamentalists raise questions similar to those debated in this series. Sebastian D’Souza / AFP
So, the question arises, does the Bajrang Dal have a right to be offended? Does Husain have the right to free speech? Do I have a right to comment on them irrespective of my cultural identity? Questions such as these are taken up in a collection of six books published by Seagull Books in collaboration with the Index on Censorship. Each book is a long-form essay discussing offence from the perspective of the offender, the “victim”, and the religious context of Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Christians.
Casper Melville in Taking Offence gives an overall perspective of the growing “culture of complaint and oversensitivity”, identifying offence and silence across religions and regions in the post-9/11 world. In particular, he charts out a five-point plan for the media on how to handle offensive material using good judgement without compromising on freedom.
The most entertaining book in the series, Giving Offence is by writer and cartoonist Martin Rowson, written from the perspective of the offending party. Interspersed with cartoons, the book discusses the role of those in the business of challenging and offending powerful interest groups, and concludes that historically, the powerful control the minds of thinking individuals and the role of those in the business of challenging and offending powerful interest groups.
In Offence—The Christian Case, Irena Maryniak chronicles the sacred and the blasphemous in the post-Soviet world and the role of the Church in perpetuating silence. Brian Klug discusses how free speech is off-limits when it comes to Israel and how censorship is used to bolster a nation state riding on Judaism in Offence—The Jewish Case.
The most relevant and interesting to the Indian audience are two books in the series by Salil Tripathi and Kamila Shamsie. Shamsie’s Offence—The Muslim Case dispels the popular notion that offence is encountered in the Muslim world only when it clashes with the West. It goes on to explain that offence is a more political intra-religious agenda, where Islam is invoked against women and ethnic minorities, often without any reference to the West. This stands in clear contrast to Tripathi’s Offence—The Hindu Case where offence is presented as an inter-religious game, one where Hindu nationalists have distorted a broad and liberal religion to compete with other religious groups for attention and the limelight.
Tripathi’s book, skilfully detailed yet eminently readable, is courageous in the current political context in India. He redefines and clarifies the basis of Hindutva and compels the reader to see the perverse and distorted version peddled by local politicians. He also relates how the very “depictions” found to be obscene have been part and parcel of Hinduism for centuries, and the vandalism and protests have little to do with Hinduism.
Offence does many things. It gives a voice and a sense of identity to the offended class while attempting to silence and shame the offenders. The question then arises: Does one have a right to be offended? And if so, how is that right enforced? A discussion sorely neglected in the entire series is the constitutional and judicial framework within which these religious rights and civil liberties are balanced. While individuals feel offended, it is typically the state that legislates and enforces bans; and the role of the state is a part of the puzzle that is not subject to discussion in the series.
The post-9/11 world has clouded many judgements, not only because the notion of multiculturalism, secularism and political correctness has changed, but because we are more scared than ever before to offend. But the culture of oversensitivity and complaint is not just a shadow of the towers of the World Trade Center. We all remember images of The Satanic Verses being burnt because it “offended Islam”. However, the fatwa on Rushdie was not about Islam, it was about politics, and Iranian leader Khomeini’s search for a domestic agenda by calling on all good Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers. Shamsie describes how the culture of intolerance was one fostered in search of a nation’s political identity in Pakistan. Tripathi chronicles the Hindu backlash, which started when the Muslims came into the spotlight with the Shah Bano case and the Rushdie fatwa. Like petulant children, Hindus, too, resorted to being oversensitive, offended and destructive to get a share of the attention; never mind that it came at the cost of speech, life and property.
Instead of the historic tyranny of the majority, we now have the tyranny of special interest groups over the rest of the world; groups which profit abundantly from the business of getting offended. Local and national elections are won and international limelight and loyal followers are gained with just a single instance. The mere suggestion of burning a book or protesting against an artwork, or even the threat of intimidation and violence, gets attention and silences the offenders. And in the market for ideas and identity, any business that is profitable gets more investment. While these benefits are concentrated on the special interest groups feeling offended, the cost is dispersed.
The cost of this profitable business of offence is not borne by the offended profiteers, but by the whole world. We pay for it with blank spaces—on our walls, in our bookshelves, in our newspapers, and our school books; and missing minutes of songs, plays and films. The future generation will pay for it with a gag order and blanks in their minds.