The Importance of Being Irreverent

Culture continuously evolves over a period of time; it does not remain static and at any given time in the polity there are multiple cultures competing to become norms. Twenty five years of market reforms in an open society have created a huge middle class and unleashed its own cultural forces which have hastened the hitherto stunted process of individuation leading to the rise of the category of the citizen, predominantly in urban India. This huge individuated population – citizens or consumers – refuse to let others speak on their behalf and be easily offended by a bunch of profane comics. However, most of the Indian society is dominated by conservative communitarian values. This is what lies at the heart of the recent controversy with the huge outrage caused by the AIB roast.

Am I Charlie?

The Indian people and the establishment rightly joined the rest of the world in condemning the political murders of cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in France. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons were often racist and portrayed Islam and the Prophet in a bad light. A bunch of fanatics were so offended that they decided to silence the cartoonists by murdering them. At that time, our Prime Minister and the External Affairs Minister tweeted in support of France and #IAmCharlie trended on twitter in India.

It turns out that what the government and a big section of the people in this country really condemned was not the violent act of silencing freedom of expression but merely the act of murder. We are all too happy to be Charlie when we are not being hurt. But when the tables are turned, we too are intolerant and only too ready to drown out that freedom in a display of self righteous outrage. The recent episode in Mumbai where a comic collective was forced to take down their show uploaded on YouTube even before a judicial enquiry had held them guilty of violating any laws, brings out the culture of intolerance and the politics of fear, which is pervasive in our society. ( Yes, the content of jokes was sexually explicit and many would have found them tasteless. However, the event was ticketed and adequate warnings were provided on the website about the content. Those who still watched it knew what they were getting into. You can always choose not to watch it; in fact, that is the most effective form of censorship.

Cultures of Intolerance: A Contradiction of Modernity in India

One of the reasons for this culture of getting easily outraged and hurt at the behest of the community is the unique process of modernization within India. It is well known and often celebrated that the old and the new co-exist in India, in constant tension, without that tension being ever conclusively resolved. So we can have the most highly paid professionals with the best of education look for brides within their own castes in a matrimonial advertisement.

We as a society are incredibly resistant to change. The changes that inevitably occur are the result of a tortuous process. This is also the case with the tension between the community and the individual or the citizen. The process of individuation and the emergence of the citizen has been stunted and marked by ascriptive identities of caste, language, religion etc.

This incomplete individuation in society has forced the individual into an often suffocating embrace of the community, compromising the development of individual reason and freedom in society at large. This overbearing embrace of the community has also been used by political parties for nurturing constituencies to meet electoral ends, in the process further undermining individuation and reasserting the hold of the community over individual reason. Being a spokesperson for any group – religious, linguistic, cultural, caste-based or the entire “society”- and standing up against its supposed humiliation are the easiest ways of getting a political following.

The importance of iconoclasts

This is of course not to argue against the acknowledgement of differences in society. The attempt is to assert the importance of the development of individuality, reason and the citizen for the healthy functioning of democracy.
In fact, it is through this irreverent and uncompromising struggle for individual personality against the suffocating embrace of tradition and community that Ambedkar and Periyar reformed our society during the course of its freedom struggle. Both these iconoclasts spoke out against existing dominant norms regarding brahminical religion and sexuality. It was considered even more blasphemous at the time to argue for sexual autonomy of women or the abolition of the caste system. Today we thank them for their irreverence.
The point is not to equate these acts with the AIB roast, but to point out that tolerance for irreverence is important for a democratic society to evolve. Silencing an opinion does not delegitimize it. It only delays a debate.

The Battle Against Conservatism

That there should be limits to free speech and that this must be checked through law should be a settled matter. However, what constitutes acceptable free speech is in itself defined by the existing power relations within society. That the group found it pragmatic to withdraw the video shows that the mob decides these limits, not the courts. This is a worrying trend. But this is in line with increasing intolerance in our society; we have seen a string of incidents of the politics of outrage against movies and books (which were watched and read anyway) and politics of hate – vandalizing churches; we have also witnessed politicians employ hate speech with impunity– recently and in the past. The dominant sections of society have always wanted to intimidate and silence the individual. A society where an individual is afraid to voice an opinion – even offensive in nature – is on a perilous path.

A democratic society must learn to have a debate among its members; not to intimidate and silence those we disagree with. Let us have this debate; those who watched the video (it got 8 million views) are also part of your society. And the conservative establishment does not speak on their behalf.