What Churchill said about buildings—we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us—is equally true for ideas. Further, bad ideas always result in deplorable situations. Like the one we have today: that free speech does not include the right to offend the sensibilities or hurt the sentiments of any group. As a consequence, politicians holding high office, and not just from the Bharatiya Janata Party, are openly favouring illiberal elements on the Padmavati issue; worse, they have almost abdicated their Constitutional duties to let a creative person himself and to throw ruffians behind bars.
The truth is that free speech without the right to offend is like omelette without eggs, for it is the right to offend that makes speech free in the first place. Speech is as old as civilisation, but free speech is of recent vintage, merely a few hundred years old. Its story began with the Renaissance in Europe, when the works and thoughts of ancient Greek philosophers got a new lease of life. It developed as the idea of individual liberty crystallised during the Enlightenment; a variety of philosophers, thinkers, scientists, mathematicians, and authors posited views that went on to formulate the concept of individual liberty and its content.
The formulation was predicated upon the acceptance of reason as the prime criterion of truth. Concomitantly, it also involved the rejection of authority—of state, the church, tradition, custom, et al—as the determinants of truth, whether it pertained to politics, science, or even religion. This rejection entailed offence to those who mattered.
It was a long, tortuous, and often torturous process; countless bitter debates took place; a million sentiments were hurt, a zillion sensibilities offended; there were persecutions and prosecutions; lives were lost and ruined. This is how such ideals as democracy, fairness, and justice got embedded in the belief system of the West, indeed in the belief system of the entire world in varying degrees.
The voyage from speech to free speech is replete with instances of offending the sensibilities of a very large number of people, many of them very powerful. Consider the case of Galileo (1564-1642). According to the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, “when he was born there was no such thing as ‘science,’ yet by the time he died science was well on its way to becoming a discipline and its concepts and method a whole philosophical system.” It became possible because he dared to challenge the ecclesiastical authorities of the time and to offend the feelings of holy men. He had to face the wrath of the Inquisition, though he was not tortured or harshly treated. Others were not so fortunate. Italian philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burnt at the stake for rejecting the traditional geocentric astronomy. He too had dared to offend the feelings of the clergy.
It was during the Age of Enlightenment that the ideas and ideals most of the world accepts now—democracy, individual liberty, justice, equality, et al—took a concrete shape. Each of them offended somebody or the other. The royalty wedded to the idea of divine right to rule was not jubilant at the theories of representational government; priests were not happy with the writings of Voltaire and Diderot; the establishment in general was not very comfortable with ideas propounded and propagated by the philosophes.
It was not only in the West that the thoughts having salutary effects offended people; the same has been true in our country. Raja Ram Mohan Roy offended almost the entire society by opposing idol worship, Hindu rituals, the caste system, and the custom of sati. Come to think of it, he did all this two centuries ago. How many public figures, let alone politicians, have the guts, in this day and age, to criticise the ever-proliferating Hindu rituals and idol worship? Now even the state is planning to build statues. Not for nothing is Ram Mohan Roy called the Maker of Modern India.
Similarly, Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who founded Arya Samaj in 1875, hurt the sentiments of a large number of people by opposing child marriage, supporting the remarriage of Hindu widows, and letting the so-called lower castes study Sanskrit and Vedas. Ram Mohan Roy was at least a Westernised gent, but Dayananda was a sage; his espousal of such unheard of practices not just offended traditional people but incensed them.
Had Galileo decided not to offend the Christians—and this would have been a rewarding option—he would have deprived the world of important truths and science would have been poorer. Had Ram Mohan Roy been nice enough to respect the sentiments of the grandees of that era, countless women would have died in funeral pyres. Had Swami Dayananda heeded to the views of the orthodox, a major social reform movement would not have taken place.
In other words, we find that progress in science, politics, religion—indeed in any sphere—rattles the status quo and thus upsets a lot of people. So, offending people, especially those of consequence, is not such a bad thing as it is made out to be; it is indeed the fuel that ensures the march of civilisation. This is why the right to offend is an integral part of free speech. As George Orwell said, if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a freelance journalist.