People are agitated about an allegedly derogatory video uploaded on YouTube by some social media personality regarding the Kedarnath pilgrimage. There is similar outrage at what is being described as anti-Hindu & Sikh content in ‘Paatal Lok’, a series produced by actress Anushka Sharma. ISKCON has filed a case against a stand-up comedian for describing its followers and Hinduism as ‘porn-addicts’. And these complaints have emerged only over the past few days. There is a lot of such content on the relatively unrestrained streaming platforms, to say little of the internet. It can be said that this new found freedom from the likes of the Censor Board has turned the heads of many content writers and producers. Like the traditional tabloids, it is today a competition for ‘clicks’, where deliberate sensationalism is a means to make big money. It also helps if one aligns with one or the other political eco-system to obtain ‘captive’ views and support.
So, should free speech of this kind, for and against, be welcomed or be constrained for a number of reasons? Do people go overboard with their negativity and abuse because of the seeming safety of physical distance from their targets? How does one exercise responsible speech in the knowledge that in the wrong context and place, it can lead to ugly consequences? Are some people and communities soft targets because they are more accommodative and liberal in their attitudes? Should advantage be taken of such a situation? What may seem mere criticism or a questioning approach can become propaganda in the hands of inimical forces to motivate terrorists and the like.
Without free speech, however, it would be almost impossible to bring about important changes such as social and political reform. For this reason, there are countries in the world that are quite fanatical about protecting freedom of expression and have paid a heavy price for it. However, physical intimidation and various kinds of attacks do ‘persuade’ the critics to choose more comfortable and safe targets. Accepting this, those speaking uncomfortable truths or even spinning tales should either have the gumption to be impartial, even at great cost to themselves, or exercise a balanced self-restraint. It is the role of governments to provide an environment that is safe to exercise this freedom. It also behooves those who feel unfairly targeted, particularly by hate speech, to use civilised and legal remedies – the impact of which is much greater. While there is much collateral damage during the course of exercising free speech, in the long run, the consequences are better for society as a whole.