Shanta Gokhale writes about the Offence series in Mumbai Mirror

Noted critic Shanta Gokhale wrote about the Offence series in her column on July 8, in Mumbai Mirror.

Full text below:

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Sitting on (of)fence

A collection of books from Seagull Books puts the issue of freedom of speech in a better light than our farcical talk shows

Every once in a while a television talk show runs out of ideas and decides to pull the ever green freedom of speech issue out of the bag. This time a news channel thought of adding fresh fuel to its popular talk show by locating it in Mumbai, the capital of hurt feelings and street violence.

The panelists on the show were expected to apply their minds to two aspects of the issue. How far should freedom of speech be stretched, and how far should the right to protest be stretched?

Artist Subodh Kerkar believed he had an absolute right to offend period. Was he willing to give others the same right? Yes he was. Prahlad Kakkar believed we were even today an immature society where absolute freedom of speech could not be permitted. Host Vikram Chandra held that no country in the world was so mature as to allow absolute freedom of speech.

One could say there was some truth in each of these views and certainly complete sincerity in all. The only view in which both virtues were conspicuously absent came, predictably, from the Shiv Sena panelist. With all of us watching and listening, this person asserted with a straight face that his party had never encouraged violence.

If we saw Shiv Sainiks attacking buses and cars, media offices and hospitals, it was just people giving vent to their emotions. No party could control that.

Although we don’t expect talk shows to give us new insights into issues, we do expect panelists not to twist the truth so blatantly to suit their purpose. However, we will let that pass. Those of us who seriously want to understand where the world stands today on the complex issue of freedom of speech and expression can look in other places, like the monographs Seagull Books have published in collaboration with Index on Censorship, the British organisation that promotes and protects freedom of speech. This set of six slim books makes for informative and occasionally eye-opening reading.

Caspar Melville, editor of New Humanist, opens the set with “Taking Offence”. British cartoonist Martin Rowson closes it with “Giving Offence”. Between them are “Offence: the Muslim Case”, “The Hindu Case”, “The Jewish Case” and “The Christian Case”. The authors of all four tread the tightrope between criticism and defence of the hurts their communities feel; and for that reason draw their communities’ hositility.

Melville’s opening analysis is not confined to a religious community. It extends to the larger European community. He shows how Europeans censor themselves in order not to hurt their own holy cows, but feel free to tweak the tails of other people’s holy cows.

The editor of Jyllands-Posten claimed that he commissioned the infamous “Danish cartoons” to stimulate a debate about the relationship between Islam and the West. In effect the predictable reaction to them widened the gap between the two. Melville suggests that newspapers need to ask themselves more honestly why they choose to target those they do.

Rowson’s answer to the question is unambiguous. While asserting that his business as a satirical cartoonist is to give offence, he believes in targeting only his social and political betters, not those who are less powerful than him.

The universal obstacle to free speech is, we must admit, our multicultural societies. A young man on “The Big Fight” complained that with so many tender toes around that we mustn’t step on, it was getting difficult to walk! Rowson has a cartoon strip that illustrates this predicament hilariously.

A stand-up comic wants to tell a joke, but starts by asking if there are any Catholics around, or Hindus, Muslims, Anglicans, Aztecs, Babylonians, Satanists. The list is 20 communities strong and they are all present. Finally he asks if there are any atheists in the room. The answer is silence. Grinning broadly, he launches into his joke: “There’s these three ugly pigshit ignorant fookin’ queer atheist bas*****…”

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