Freedom to offend

November 19, 2017

For all its claim to progress the modern world has made a paradoxical shift towards censorship

Freedom to offend

It appears that the space for expression is shrinking in the world, and this does not only refer to certain parts of the world, but all over. People and communities are becoming more edgy both about being talked about and made the subject of art. The possibility of creating an environment where freedom of expression can be safeguarded and the arts can be assessed in a dispassionate way in a world grappling with its great variations is presently receding.

It further raises a question whether one can make a case for freedom of the arts separately from general freedoms that are safeguarded in a society or a social order.

Ones who dare to express views found to be offensive are barred from speaking. An agitation precedes or follows if being allowed so. Various instances can be quoted in recent times of people airing far right views not being allowed to speak, or certain religious groups not being allowed to vent their views in the most famous universities of the world, the so called bastions of freedom, both artistic and academic.

These days there seem to be no difference in treating art and other expressed freedoms that may not qualify to be art; there is a growing body that considers art to be only glorified propaganda.

In the past few months, there have been statements and actual demonstration in streets and vandalism on the sets of film Padmavati by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He has been accused of distorting historical facts in his film by ultra right groups in India. Or two ballets, Britain the Wind and The Judas Tree have been condemned for glorification of the victimisation of violence of, in both cases, needless to say, female characters.

The target for most have been plays or films made ready victim of castigation, disapproval and hence agitation. Some sections of the population, either within the country or outside, express their displeasure at being made fun of, lay it upon prejudice or bias and hence dismiss it altogether.

The instances are too many to mention; every now and then news surfaces of a protest or a note of anger or rebuttal about the portraiture of an individual, community, a group or a country. There was an exhibition in Geneva some years ago where the artistes had spilled red colour depicting a pool or a puddle of blood supposed to be an artistic rendering of the killing fields of Palestine. To the horror of most, the Israeli ambassador to Switzerland came in person and vandalised the show. With a picket in hand, he in person hacked whatever it was to pieces, then with great deal of vengeful pride spoke of his accomplishment while vilifying those who dared treat Israel as an aggressor, occupier or a perpetrator of genocide.

Except for a murmur or two of disgust from some, it was generally tolerated by quite a few and no serious consequences ensued. If there had been an exhibition by Israel and some official sympathetic to the Palestinian cause had vandalised in similar fashion, would the reaction been as muted as quoted above?

Not a day goes by when there is not a hullabaloo about some play or a film which denigrates a particular community. The Jews are very particular and high-strung about their condemnation or what they perceive to be an aspersion on their right to live, given the conditions that led to their persecution in Europe in the centuries culminating in the twentieth century holocaust. And there have been issues with race -- given the context of the very prickly relationship that has existed between the races particularly in the United States. There has been the question of religion -- particularly Islam in the context of the recent past -- ethnicity and a whole rereading of the past and present by the rising tide of strident feminism.

Comedy as a rule is about laughter and laughter is always or most of the time created or caused by disparities that exist between individuals and social orders. But the very fact that one can laugh over them or these antinomies is cause for celebration and joy rather than anger and dismay. The reason why we laugh is that we can come to terms with the difference, and attempt to overcome, if not in reality or life, at least in literature or the arts. It is coming at par with the disagreeable and the distasteful that humour becomes a great equaliser to make us rise above the normal.

But these days, either way, it is seen as an offence or considered to be offensive. It is perceived as something that is meant to belittle and to slight rather than an appreciation of difference to be swallowed with the coating of humour.

These days there seem to be no difference in treating art and other expressed freedoms that may not qualify to be art; there is a growing body that considers art to be only glorified propaganda. Art, so to say, has never been about appeasement and acceptance of status quo -- if it were so then there would be no difference between art and propaganda. It is actually about questioning the status quo, the self-certain values and beliefs which communities and nations hold very close to their chest.