Freedom of speech – A reality check

Absolute freedom of speech is an American concept. There, I said it. It is a privilege for the elites than a “right” for the masses. At least in our country (India), we need to be honest with ourselves. Any person from any background must know very well what are the limits to their speech. The consequences are at times fatal and mostly uncomfortable.

We as a society can’t even tell our parents what we really feel about our own families. How can we muster up the courage outside the four walls of our homes? Charity begins at home, and so do societal behaviours and norms. Until and unless we have a ground-up cultural revolution that allows us to express ourselves in the face of “authority”, how can we even dream about raising our voices against the “real authority” of politics, religion, and tradition?

Don’t get me wrong. I am fairly religious. But I am vastly below average in terms of religiosity compared to the average Indian. For any honest analysis of India, we must start with the reality that it is the land of religions. Not just Hinduism, but many others that coexist and have been for centuries and millennia. Did you know the first church in India (St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Church, Kerala) was built before any major churches were built in Europe? We are the world’s most fertile land for religions and will always be so.

Now once we’ve established that, we must walk from that point to any and every other. We just won’t ever reach a point where we can truly criticize any religion in our nation without a substantial blowback. Western nations can afford to criticize religion because, for centuries, they’ve been dissociating their identities from their religion. For Indians and many other nationalities, their religion is a key part of who they are.

We can ask for a moderate change in religious practices and customs. Any other approach is either misguided at best or incendiary on purpose at worst. Our rulers have known this for centuries and have never tampered with this core part of every Indian’s identity. Even our leading communist parties haven’t attacked religion like other communist parties in the 20th century did across different parts of the world.

Our religiosity transcends across realms of God and Goddesses when we actively deify sportsmen (Sachin), actors (Rajnikanth, Salman Khan), and politicians (too many to name). Criticize any of them and watch yourself being under fire from ardent devotees who take every statement in the spirit of a medieval theocratic authority. Our identities are wrapped and intertwined with the fates and reputations of our preferred God and Goddesses.

Hence any change must come in the form of a suggestion and not a criticism. That’s the realistic limit our culture affords us. Absolute freedom of speech is the exact opposite practice which discourages self-censorship and treats speech as a vital tool in driving society towards a better version of itself. “May the best set of ideas” win. The problem is, for many of our countrymen, those ideas aren’t ideas, they are realities. They are extremely tangible ways of living that have stood the test of time – for better or worse.

Hence, when ideas are meant to have a bout in our country, they are followed by actual foot soldiers. Violence becomes an obvious next step in this process of determining the success of ideas. Whether it is Sachin vs Kohli or Religion 1 vs Religion 2, our folks literally lose their minds while slugging it out on ideological battlefields. We are a touchy-feely country. I’ve always maintained that online conversations are never just online. They’ve offline consequences. Call it an omnichannel conversational experience.

This is soon turning into a reality in the USA where religion’s void has been filled in by actual political ideologies from both the right and the left. They are literally slugging it out there! There have been threats and protests outside the homes of Supreme Court judges due to controversial rulings in recent times.

Every country has religions. They just come in different forms. And very few of them come with a feedback form!

So mind your tongue friends. Use it to taste good food and wine. Don’t try to use it as a saber. 

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