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?