From Steve Bannon to Lois Sophia: Liberals get #FoE all wrong

A healthy exchange and debate about diverse ideas, not echo chambers, facilitate progress.

WrittenBy:Rajan Laad
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This week the idea of freedom of expression was put to test and as always ‘liberals’ around the world showed how little they understand about this rather simple but basic tenet of democracy.

In Tamil Nadu, Lois Sophia, a 28-year-old student was arrested by the local police for shouting “fascist BJP government down, down“, targeting the BJP state president Tamilisai Soundararajan. The incident occurred aboard a Tuticorin flight. She was then remanded to fifteen days of judicial custody. ‘Liberals slammed the arrest for ‘crushing dissent’, while the Congress called it ‘an assault on freedom of speech’.

In the US, Donald Trump’s former campaign strategist Steve Bannon was disinvited from the New Yorker Festival after a high-profile backlash led by ‘liberals’.

In the case of Lois Sophia, she is perfectly entitled to hold her views about the BJP. But her choice of forum clearly is contrary to generally accepted norms of civility and decorum. Also with terrorist threats perennially looming over, the atmosphere at an airport is volatile with vigilant officials trying their best not only to maintain security but also maintain peace.

This vigilance is at its peak within the aircraft, where even the appearance of a threat, however innocuous it may turn out to be, is taken seriously.  If individuals engage in indiscriminate raucous sloganeering, it could be considered to be an act of violence or perhaps a sign that violence is to follow. One can argue whether mere sloganeering warrants an arrest, but verbal intimidation in a flight is a punishable offence per to flight safety laws.

Lois had a myriad of alternatives forums to express her anti-BJP ideas. She could have conducted her protest outside Soundararajan office she could have written articles for The Wire, she could have appeared on NDTV or joined the Mahagathbandhan or taken to social media. If she really wanted to be challenged for her shouting abilities she could have appeared on The Republic.

But we do not want flights to become forums for ear-splitting political protests if this is allowed we may soon have protests at hospitals, funerals, and even libraries. As things stand now, Sophia was granted bail.

Now about Steve Bannon being dropped from the New Yorker festival that was greeted with rapturous approval from ‘liberals’. The festival should have been a forum that facilitates the exchange of diverse perspectives. Bannon has shown himself to be an able debater and communicator of ideas. The festival presented the opportunity to understand Bannon’s worldview, grill him with tough questions and even engage in him in a debate. New Yorker Editor David Remnick is an able interviewer and could have done rather well here. But instead, they just chose to shut down that possibility altogether. Thankfully, the Economist who also invited Steve Bannon did not cave in like the New Yorker.

Among the prominent voices asking for Bannon to be dropped was Chelsea Clinton who tweeted “For anyone who wonders what normalization of bigotry looks like, please look no further than Steve Bannon being invited by both @TheEconomist & @NewYorker to their respective events in #NYC a few weeks apart”. It appears Chelsea prefers only the gentle chimes of an echo chamber to the cacophony of opposing perspectives.

One would have hoped that if anybody understood the pitfalls of hiding in echo chambers, it would be the Clintons. It was these echo chambers that misinformed Hillary Clinton that she was going to win by a landslide in 2016. This caused her great hubris, that lead her to not campaign in key areas that were essential for her to be in competition. It was the demonising and ignoring of a different point of view that prevented her from understanding why the working-class gravitated toward Donald Trump. Instead, she labelled Trump supporters as deplorable. But we can all learn from Hillary’s mistakes even if the Clintons choose not to do so.

In both cases, ‘liberals’ conflate the contents of what is being expressed with the actual right to express. They approved of Sophia’s ideas hence they didn’t mind the chaos, they disapproved of Bannon’s idea hence they celebrate when he was dropped.

As stated earlier, freedom of expression is the most important tenet of a functioning democracy. This includes the right to opine, to criticise, to offend, to insult, to ridicule, to satirize, to express hateful and obscene ideas and to ridicule anything under the sun including the state,  religion, public figures, the formidable fourth estate and even the almighty (if he exists).

What is obscene to one may be artful to another. What is crass to one may be hilarious to another. What is crude to one may be engaging to another. A bigot to somebody may be a maverick to another. We allow personal taste to dictate what is permitted in any forum of ideas.

Most importantly, it is a healthy exchange and debate about diverse ideas, not echo chambers, that facilitates progress as we learn to understand and empathise with the opposing point of view. Also denying an individual his right to express is denying yourself the right to be exposed to it.

Freedom of expression emanates from freedom of thought and it is often these thoughts that have led to change in society. All the great works of art, inventions and discoveries would have probably been impossible if someone somewhere, had not dared to be different and more importantly dared to express this difference of opinion without fear.

It is this solitary contrarian voice that begins like a flickering flame but with the support it results in illuminating everybody. If we become a society that sticks to convention we cease to grow.

But as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes opined: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic.” In other words, civility and public safety will always govern the right to free expression. Sticking to the theme of famous quotes (perhaps clichés) English author Evelyn Beatrice Hall, not Voltaire famously said: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” One would hope that every liberal makes these very profound words, the fundamental axiom of their being.


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