May 22, 2007

On consequence

A few years ago, a friend sent me the manuscript of a book he had written on dams, for me to read and comment on. Once a war reporter, he is an accomplished writer and his prose is often lyrical in its clarity and flow. So this book (it's now out) is a serious, meticulously researched and fully experienced work -- but hardly academic.

Anyway. One part of the manuscript is about a visit to a river valley in India, populated largely by tribals. He was struck by the beauty there -- he writes of the "clean air", and hills that "like a soft, green undulating brush".

Then, describing his departure from the area, he had this sentence: "The terrain reverted to soiled Hindu plain."

Those few words stopped me in my tracks, reading the manuscript.

Did I tell myself, "it's his freedom of expression; therefore I won't say anything"? Well, not quite. I wrote to him that evening: "I think you will raise a lot of hackles with that remark. I mean, perhaps you need not care about this, but I think critics will pounce on that statement and dismiss you angrily, saying 'here's a guy casting aspersions on Hinduism!'"

Here's the point. My friend had the right to write that line, and if he wanted to keep it, that's his freedom of expression. But especially because he expected me to be frank about his manuscript, I had to alert him to possible reactions to the sentence. Naturally, he was free to ignore me, keep the line and face any consequences. Not only that: if he wanted to keep the line, I would fully support his freedom to do so; I would speak out to defend him against any reactions and consequences. Not only that, I would find objectionable any law that pronounces such a line illegal because it might offend people.

But there's a big difference between such a law, and my telling him that he might offend people. As far as I'm concerned, he had to know that his freedom might have consequences. He could choose to face those consequences, but he had to know them.

In other words, his freedom comes, willy-nilly, with responsibilities.

This is the way to consider a recent uproar in Baroda. Meaning, this is not about what is or is not art, because I have no idea and couldn't care less anyway. It is not about teasing out the nuances of freedom, because how is the freedom to be offended different from, or somehow lesser than, the freedom of expression that might offend? It is not about who is or is not a fundamentalist: a word that I find pretty much meaningless most of the time.

No: this is purely about consequence and responsibility. Had the art student asked me, I would have said something similar to what I told my friend the writer. Like: "Your paintings will offend some people. Think about the consequences. Think about whether you want to exhibit them."

And if he went ahead anyway, I would defend him against the kinds of reactions he has got. Because he has the right to offend.

Equally, you have the right to feel offended, as I know many were. You have the right to protest, as one Jain did in Baroda. But no, you do not have the right to shut down an exhibition because you are offended. Nor the right to rough up the artist.

Such things, and the arrest of the student, are the attacks on free expression.

What about my writer friend? Initially, he could not see why the sentence might offend anyone. But eventually, he removed it.

Did I deny him his freedom of expression? Your call.


Postscript: Found it! I knew I had mentioned it on this site, took me a while to locate where (here).

That's Steve DeFrank's portrait of his parents, Mom and Dad, on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. As the NYT describes it, the work "underlines the museum's brave new energy. [It is] a 1960's-era representation of [DeFrank's] parents made with small, illuminated Lite-Brite bulbs, shows them wearing only gold chains, watches, suntans and smiles."

Is it offensive? Should it have been banned?


Anonymous said...

A higher level is to be very offended about something *yourself* -not Hindus, not some unknown other, and then defend the freedom of that offensive expression.

I try that mental test and come close to failing- no bans yes but there will likely be some schadenfreude in my expression of sympathy if the 'artist' came to experience some not-so-greivous physical harm (like a bloody nose). I take this as a problem for me and try to work it down and feel genuinely sorry for him/her.

Re your test:

1. Images- offensive?
I will check those images- most likely NSFW- later.

2. Ban them?
No. Strength of no to vary after seeing them.


Siddharth Adelkar said...


In your experiences around India, did you ever get the feeling that Indians in general as a society find it hard to understand teh concept of freedom?

Many authors and screenwrights have included a very typical preindependence argument, where the protagonist tries to argue for freedom and villagers find it hard to grasp the concept.

And to some extent is'nt it a bit reasonable. What is so fundamental about freedom...and how free can we really get...we find ourselves in some confinements no matter how much we extricate ourselves.

It is understandable, that most ( presumably) modern humans would advocate a quasi libertarian stance. It is understandable if the government of India (and we "Indians", the citizens of this state) profess liberty. India, the state and many such states stand on the pillars of freedom.

But many other societies, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Jain and others do not stand on that concept. Typically (I might be wrong here) societies based on religions in fact stand on the opposite of freedom, be it any religion.

This is a question to Dilip and to Jai. and, the question wot are your experiences with Indians and the concept of freedom

Dilip D'Souza said...

higher level is to be very offended about something *yourself*...

Indeed. I believe this has happened: in this very space (and elsewhere, for that matter) there has been utterly offensive stuff said about people close to me, by people who, unlike Chandramohan, choose to remain anonymous.

I don't like it. But it's all still there.

People have a right to say such things. Whether I get offended is irrelevant to that right.

Siddharth: many other societies, Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, Jain and others do not stand on that concept... [etc]

A fair enough observation. But so what? It remains an ideal to push for, to persuade people about. That's the point. I don't believe we'll get to a stage where we will never have incidents like the Baroda one. But that doesn't mean we can't aim towards such a stage.

Anonymous said...

1. Ok pix were very offensive, and obnoxious the idea this guy had to embarrass his parents to avenge his feelings as a 10yr old.

2. I guess no ban though.

3. If there is no law requiring consent from a living person to portray them in recognizable likeness this way, there should be; and of this is violative of that, the painting should be pulled. This would not be a 'ban'.


your q:

I have very limited experience and am more into introspection. DDS can give you a better answer.

But in general from my experience, Indians go out of their way to avoid giving offence.

Most of us willingly place constraints on our freedom of expression.

This would lead us to expect the other party to do likewise, and be very offended if they dont.

Once offended, we may rationalize away any 'punishment' the offenders receive and dont split hairs too much abt the process by which such punishment was effected; by authorities under law or otherwise ( ie. he had it coming for his 'ku-karma').

Just my 0.02.