Call it self-loathing, but even as a writer whose livelihood depends on freedom of expression, I can think of a few circumstances where I’ve felt an aching need for reasonable restraint.
I ought to put your mind at ease first. This is not a call to revert to Erdoğanian limitations on free speech, with the threat of the unforgiving sedition law hanging over every drawing room and coffee house in the country. Nor is it an invitation to expand blasphemy laws to criminalize theological debate altogether.
A few days ago, JK Rowling rose to defend Donald Trump’s right to be offensive and bigoted, citing ‘freedom of speech’. Rowling assured her audience that she did not agree with Trump’s views, but acknowledged Trump’s liberty to be able to say what he wants without being barred from entering the UK – referring to a popular petition circulating on the internet, that has gathered hundreds of thousands of signatories.
“If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed a line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison torture and kill on exactly the same justifications,” said Ms. Rowling.
Perhaps it’d be easier for Pakistani liberal intellectuals to comprehend my argument, if I attempt to translate Trump’s rhetoric to its closest Pakistani equivalent, taking into account the dynamics of power in this country.
Consider a Punjabi politician gaining momentum across the country; routinely referring to Christians as ‘choorhas’; taking frequent jabs at “pathans” and their alleged untrustworthiness, shaking his fist at Ahmadis and their sinister ways, and spouting a kind of misogyny that puts Junaid Jamshed to shame. This hypothetical politician exhibits little awareness of world politics, has an outrageously jingoistic approach to relations with India, and displays no remorse for his political incorrectness.
A petition is launched in Boston, calling for the US government to deny the American visa to this particular politician, as he plans to visit the country next month to attend a series of fundraising events. The ‘free speechers’, mostly followers of this politician, are incensed by the petition and assert that he has a right to say whatever he wishes.
Defenders of unlimited liberty in this regard, insist on applying free market principles to speech. They fantasise an open marketplace of ideas where, based on the ‘Just World Hypothesis’, the best ideas would inevitably rise to the surface of the pool.
Consider two different merchants in the marketplace of ideas: one urging that Pakistani-Hindus ought to be allowed their full set of rights as citizens of this country, and another insisting that their rights be curtailed unless they convert to the state religion.
The fantasy involves a non-violent showdown of opposing ideologies before the eyes and ears of an intelligent audience, where the logical one is ultimately deemed victorious. This theory is built on the supposition that the opposing forces are equal, and the ideology championed by the weaker voice wouldn’t immediately be steamrolled by the ideology being sponsored by the powerful.
Everyone has a right to say what he wants, but never mind the fact that we’re not being equally heard. A wealthy playboy/politician can spill uninhibited vitriol on national stage about “choorhas” and “Qaddiyanis” and have his unconscionable rhetoric broadcasted on every major news network across the country; that’s his free speech. If you don’t like it, feel free to post your counterargument on your WordPress blog garnering an eye-popping average of 47 views a day. See? Freedom of speech works for everyone, and God bless the unregulated marketplace of ideas. Indeed, it’s like a college debate; except that there are nine speakers on the opponent’s team, and my microphone is switched off.
Rowling opts to live in a world every bit as magical as her books. It is a neat little world, in which complex socio-political exchanges can be simplified to handy formulas written on a bumper sticker on the Weasley family’s flying Ford Anglica. It’s a childlike universe with “Free Speech 4-eva!” an axiom carved across a stone arch in all-wise Dumbledore’s office; utterly sacred, and inviolable in all circumstances.
Theoretically, the neoliberal version of free speech is quite appealing, as there is no way to objectively define who’s righteous, and therefore, more worthy of liberty than others. Surely, the answer must be universal freedom of speech.
But a man’s freedom must be evaluated where it begins to encroach upon the freedom and security of others. Racial minorities have a right to not be feared and hated for the colour of their skin. Poor people have a right to basic human dignity. Disabled people have a right not be tormented for their disabilities, and not have celebrities and politicians reinforce a culture of ableism. But just as important, clearly, is a white billionaire’s freedom to laugh at our expense and antagonise our struggles.
You know you’re privileged, when you have the luxury of discussing ‘bigotry’ as an academic subject and not a real-life phenomenon. Like the speech of a mainstream politician does not affect my odds of finding a cab at night; like it doesn’t affect the likelihood a brown person being unnecessarily strip-searched at JFK; like it doesn’t affect a ‘Mexican’ woman’s chance of finding a job.
You know you’re privileged, when you’re entitled to attend a glittering gala in New York, and to the amusement and applause of your fellow literary elites, tell the underprivileged that their attempt at preventing Trump from reinforcing a bigoted culture puts them in the company of torturers and murderers. Because again, a rich white man’s right to throw a racial slur at you, is supposedly as important as your need to avoid having “Go home towel head!” painted on your garage door.
I can no longer pretend to be enthused about a privileged man’s right to tell a rape joke, or a fat joke. Or cast a homophobic slur or a classist remark. I cannot pretend that the rich white man is on the cusp of being disenfranchised, and just one petition away from being muzzled and shot dead by a white cop.
I cannot pretend that your right to say oppressive things is as crucial as my right to not be oppressed. I apologise for my hypocrisy.