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Posts Tagged ‘intolerance’

The Mumbai terror attacks were remarkable, not just for their audacity and horrifying elements, but also for the spontaneous reaction it elicited from the public. Citizens across India demonstrated in massive numbers and expressed their outrage against terrorists and politicians. There were posters and sloguns and an atmosphere of common purpose. The numbers were massive, the intensity electrifying, the cause just.

However I wonder.

I wonder what those protesters, proud Indians all, who presumably are outraged at Pakistani terrorists killing our people and overjoyed about our economic growth and rapid urbanization, feel about Raj Thackeray’s dictats to out-staters, the culture of entitled offendedness that pervades our society and makes people force their beliefs on others, the recent incident where a Pakistani girl studying in Mumbai was assaulted  for having an Urdu tattoo on her body or this other incident where Ram Sena activists beat up pub goers for behaving ‘immorally’.

I wonder if they think twice when they read about Sania Mirza getting harrassed for keeping her feet too close to our flag, Taslima Nasreen being told what she cannot write, M F Hussain’s paintings being vandalized, Tamil movies being ‘banned’ in Karnataka, arrests made for writing derogatory stuff about politicians or Harbhajan Singh being dragged to court for dressing up as Ravana in a TV show. If they do, they certainly do not show it.

So, while I am happy that my country has been recording good economic growth and all that, I fail to muster up enough enthusiasm about the grassroot protests that took place after the Mumbai attacks. There is little to argue about a terrorist attack; we all agree it is horrifying and wrong and that the perpetrators should be punished. Protests and all are fine and good, but there is hardly much moral ambiguity at stake there. On the other hand, the incidents I mention are commonplace and related in that they all involve a complete disregard for individual liberty. There are principles at stake there, principles worth fighting for. So, when I see that my countrymen, who proved their amazing ability to gather together  and protest less than two months ago, display little or no outrage at all these incidents I have mentioned above, it tells me something — their values are not really pro-liberty, their conception of morality not necessarily mine.

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Iran’s parliament is discussing a bill which would make “establishing weblogs and sites promoting corruption, prostitution or apostasy” a crime punishable by death. The bill also stipulates that once awarded, the sentence “cannot be commuted, suspended or changed”.

More here.

As a morally corrupt (certainly by Iranian standards!), prostitution-advocating libertarian and atheist who delves into all these matters in his posts , I wonder what I’d be thinking now if I were Iranian.

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A hundred years ago, you could be arrested if your drawing, writing or other form of creative expression was considered obscene by the authorities. Artistic freedom was not as important as preserving public morality. And the idea that a century on, pornography could be displayed and sold in perfectly legal shops was unthinkable.

For good or bad, those times are far behind us. One of the greatest jewels of the United States is her First Amendment, a piece of law enshrined in her constitution and systematically strengthened by the courts through the last century – that guarantees the freedom of expression for all. In modern day USA you can depict anything and not worry about the moral police coming after you. Of course you can still be charged if your work is libelous or directly incites violence or violates someone else’s rights. But other than that, the idea that someone can be put in jail simply for expressing distasteful thoughts or fantasies is preposterous. This is a free country, right?

Wrong.

Karen Fletcher, a reclusive woman living in Pittsburgh, recently began posting short stories on the Internet that describe, in graphic detail, the sexual abuse of children – in order, she says, to cope with her own history of childhood abuse. The internet abounds in pornography, much of it visual. Fletcher’s stories had no illustrations, were obvious works of fantasy, and were not displayed publicly. The only way to read these stories was by paying a modest sum of ten dollars a month, so that – Fletcher says – she could she could keep the website running and also protect children (and unwilling adults) from accessing it. Yet those stories, read by about 29 paying subscribers, have made Fletcher one of the few people facing federal criminal charges for obscenity.

In many ways, Fletcher’s case is unusual. A obscenity charge is rare these days, and almost unheard of in situations where no one has been harmed in the making of the offending material. And a case like Fletcher’s, which involves only the written word, has not been successfully prosecuted in the last thirty five years in this country.

So if this case feels like a throwback to the dark ages, it indeed is. But it should not be viewed in isolation. Recent years have witnessed an increasing clamping down on civil liberties in the US, accompanied by the passage of the Patriot Act, draconian anti-discrimination laws, hate-crime laws and an atmosphere of extreme political correctness. This particular case seems to be an example of the Bush administration’s efforts to cater to the religious right and reinvigorate the Obscenity Act. It is a long, slippery slope. Once a certain level of freedom becomes unacceptable, the bar is lowered and the next act of censorship is not only easier but also more extreme. Intolerance begets greater intolerance and by the time you realise the value of what you have lost, it is too late. Once these freedoms are gone, the wheels of motion are much harder to turn in the opposite direction. Illiberality and offended sensibilities make for excellent political nourishment. Those of us from India will attest to that.

It is possible that Karen Fletcher will not be convicted. If she is, God save us all.

The case is now over, see update (5/21/08)


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