Free speech: "Cannot you hold your tongue?"

(Published in Forbes India, January/ February 2011, for its Curators of Interestingness series.)


“Someone will say: Yes, Socrates, but cannot you hold your tongue, and then you may go into a foreign city, and no one will interfere with you?”
From Plato’s Apology, concerning the trial of Socrates.

In 399 BC, the finest and most prominent citizens of a state known for its commitment to justice and fairness gathered to decide on the fate of one of its best-known gadfly-philosophers. By the end of the meeting in Athens, Socrates had been sentenced to death, apparently for no greater crimes than “impiety” and “corrupting the youth”. He became the first free-speech martyr: his response to those who asked him to hold his tongue is often quoted.

“Now I have great difficulty in making you understand my answer to this. For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living—that you are still less likely to believe.”

These lines have formed the bedrock of the argument for free speech for centuries, along with John Stuart Mill’s 1859 pronouncement in On Liberty: “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”

The trial of Socrates, as it has been presented by Plato and Xenophon, is heartbreaking: there you have the Western world’s first free-speech martyr, put to death in the twilight of his life by a cruel state. The problem with this view, as IF Stone has pointed out, is that Athens was not a tyrannical state—it did not share the views of modern-day China, Burma or Korea on the evils of free speech and the value of censorship. The citizens of Athens acted out of character when it came to the trial of Socrates; they condemned him perhaps for political reasons (he had not spoken out against the rule of tyrants), perhaps for personal ones (the corruption of the youth previously mentioned), and only in part because his opinions made the state and its citizens uncomfortable.

The great contemporary battles over free speech are not dissimilar. We accept, in theory, that free speech is necessary for any functioning democracy; in practice, freedom of expression has never been a comfortable virtue to exercise. It’s not about what books one should be allowed to read, or about whether an author is right or wrong—free speech debates go to the heart of exploring any society’s areas of discomfort. Sometimes those have to do with sex and love; often they have to do with religion and faith; and occasionally, the discomfort comes from having one’s implicit beliefs about the society you live in challenged. Sometimes it’s the state that feels under attack, or that will work to protect itself against perceived criticism. But what we attack, as readers in India or the United States, tells us a great deal about what makes us deeply uneasy as human beings.

For two excellent primers on free speech issues, read PEN’s Freedom of Speech is No Offense—a collection of writings on free speech by authors across Britain—or Seagull India’s excellent Censorship series.

In the Germany of 1933, what we refer to now as the Nazi book-burnings began as a student protest, calling for a cleansing, a “Sauberung”. The German Student Association called for “Action against the un-German Spirit”, spoke of a need to “purify” German language and literature against the taint of Jewish intellectualism, and organized a series of book burnings across the country. The schedule was meticulously drawn up: a torchlight procession of students would arrive to parade music, the song ‘Brothers, Forward’ would be sung, and selected books and journals would be burned, followed by a group sing-a-long.

And so did Bertolt Brecht, Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, among thousands of others, go to the flames. The list of authors burned is a very revealing list—from Thomas Mann to Erich Marie Remarque, Marcel Proust to Emile Zola and Upton Sinclair, what the young students in Germany were really blocking out was any kind of thought that might oppose Hitler’s doctrines. The Nazi regime depended on its existence on the idea that “pure” German thought and nationalism was under threat; and that the only way to defend the true spirit of Germany was to call for a purge.

Thirteen years later, there would be an unpleasant echo of the Nazi book-burnings, when the Allied troops decided in 1946 to purge about 30,000 books—all “undemocratic, militaristic and Nazi” literature and paintings. The principle was the same; the only difference is that the Allied armies did not continue their purges for as much time as Hitler’s youth.

In India, perhaps the most significant book ban after 1947 was the ban placed on Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The ban on the Verses came into force in October 1988, and has never been lifted. The grounds for the ban were that the supposed blasphemy of the novel—where Rushdie uses the “Satanic” verses to explore and attack aspects of Islam, as part of a larger framework where he explores multiculturalism and diasporas—might cause violence in the country.

The logic of the Verses ban seems, at first glance, impeccable. An author has written a novel that is perhaps inflammatory, and that may offend many Muslims—it may even cause those offended, whether Muslim or not, to take to the streets in violence. But the deeper principle at work in the Satanic Verses case was whether India would uphold two basic and linked rights: the right of any citizen or writer to criticize faith in general and a religion in particular (the right to blaspheme, in effect), and the right of ideas that go against the flow of mainstream thought to be protected. Behind the legal ramifications of the Satanic Verses ban lies a simple question: are you free to question religion, or should religion be above question?

The Indian state, like many other democracies, has not made up its mind on the subject. In terms of offence, the rants of the Hindutva rightwing, for instance, or of hardline Muslim preachers, have been far more offensive, and urged listeners on to far more hatred than Rushdie has ever espoused. We are, as a country, sensitive on the subject of religion; in 1956, shortly after Independence, India banned Aubrey Menen’s Rama Retold. Menen’s retelling of the Ramayana was ruled to be scurrilous (it was, deliberately so) and potentially explosive. We are not yet comfortable with the idea that religion can be challenged—and mocked—in fiction.

Other Indian attempts to corral free speech have been largely political in nature. The brief ban on Taslima Nasreen’s Dwikhandito in West Bengal, the recent attempt to pillory Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey and to present it as obscene and offensive, the ban on James Laine’s Shivaji—all of these were part of attempts by various political parties to gain mileage. Sometimes, it’s the state’s own broader concerns that come into play, as with Stanley Wolpert’s Nine Hours to Rama—banned because of Wolpert’s revelations about lacunae in the security given to Mahatma Gandhi.

One of the murkier areas for free speech is, for obvious reasons, sex: what is obscene to one person is another one’s liberating read. Ulysses, by James Joyce, was banned on the grounds that it might cause American readers to harbour “impure and lustful” thoughts; Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, was banned in France, and copies were seized in the UK after the Sunday Express called it “sheer unrestrained pornography”.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by DH Lawrence, became the subject of a landmark 1959 trial—against its use of “unprintable words” and the complaint that it was not the kind of book one would wish one’s “wife or servants to read”, the publishers successfully argued that it had literary merit. John Cleland’s cheerfully pornographic Fanny Hill is remarkable for having attracted obscenity suits from 1748 down to 1977, when it was proved to have sufficient “artistic value” to offset Cleland’s memoirs of a courtesan.
Closer to home, Ismat Chughtai’s Lajja (The Quilt) became the subject of an obscenity trial for its depiction of a relationship between two women—but the trial foundered on language; Chughtai had used no explicit terms. Mridula Garg’s Chittacobra was attacked for its sexual content—and for the fact that a woman was writing freely about desire—in the courts of a state known for the vast quantities of pulp Hindi porn it produced.

Perhaps the most fiercely contested areas of free speech have to do with politics. For years, Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter could not be read in South Africa, because her analysis of racial and sexual politics in the country flew in the face of the ruling regime’s lines of thought. George Orwell’s Animal Farm has always made some regimes deeply uncomfortable; countries supportive of Russia would not print it, and in Kenya, it was banned because Orwell’s animal insurrections were seen (correctly) as a criticism of corrupt leaders. In Russia, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s unsparing depiction of life in the gulags—and his extension of the metaphor of the gulag to the whole country—threatened the entire moral basis of the state. The manuscript of The Gulag Archipelago had to be typed in several friends’ houses, in hiding; and had to be smuggled out of the USSR before it could be printed.

And the most absurd instance of a free speech ban was probably the one that operated for years in China on Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s classic was placed on the list of dangerous books not for its incendiary content, or for its political ideas, but because “it was disastrous to put animals and human beings at the same level”. This line always calls up an image of an official in the Hunan province, deeply disturbed that Carroll’s Cheshire Cats and caterpillars have shaken up the natural order of the world!





One response to “Free speech: "Cannot you hold your tongue?"”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    With ref to 'what we attack is what makes us deeply uneasy' – it seems that Arundhati Roy's writings make most of my friends very, very uneasy. They hate her with a passion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: