Offensive or Defensive?

Dear Rahul Gee,

Are we fast moving towards an emergency like situation in the country, with the government getting increasingly intolerant of dissent or slights of any kind? The high handed manner in which the protest by Baba Ramdev was dealt with and the orchestrated campaign to discredit the Anna Hazare movement and malign the key players associated with it are some indications of the dangerous mindset the government is getting into. Recent statements by Kapil Sibbal Gee about the government’s inclination or desire to monitor content that is uploaded on social networking sites, and filter out the undesirable from it, also point towards this.

The latest in this sequence of events is the banning of a site called India Against Corruption which was being run by cartoonist Aseem Trivedi, for displaying “defamatory and derogatory cartoons”.

There are two observations on this – one practical and the other on principle – and I also have one doubt. First the practical observation.

One can understand the ignorant dinosaurs in the ‘grand old party’ feeling that online content can be wished away by banning or controlled by censoring it – like books or newspapers in the good old days of 1975. But why doesn’t your tech savvy generation explain to these not so gentle men the realities of the information age. By banning the content you are attempting to suppress, you are only giving it more publicity and popularity. While this was not a major problem when physical access to the banned material was easy to control, today access flows through wires and air waves to and from all over the world. If you ban the content at one source, there will be hundreds of other sources where it will appear in no time at all. Thus the increased publicity by banning means many many more eyeballs searching for and circulating the content that was sought to be banned.In other words, by banning a particular content, the government is only helping it go viral (in case you don’t know what that means, ask Dhanush).

Second is the matter of principle. With citizens of the 21st century zealously treasuring their freedom of expression, even people who have no interest in the content per se, as also those who may not agree with it, will make common cause against its banning. “I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to death your right to say it” – these words, though spoken by Voltaire more than two centuries ago, are ever more relevant today.

And my doubt – well its an old one. Who died and left you and your friends in charge of deciding what I should see and what I should not? How can you decide what is offensive and what is not? As it is, there is no dearth of offensive stuff on the net, and you don’t go about chasing and banning all of it. So why are Sibbal Gee and party so quick to take offense about some stuff in particular? What if I don’t find it offensive?

Offensive, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. So why not just let the beholders decide – if they do find it offensive, they will avoid it.But if they find it striking a chord – and you find it offensive – then you probably need to think deeply about  way you are doing things.

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