Last week, in this space, I had written about Zaid Hamid’s detention in Saudi Arabia and why all Pakistanis must oppose it. The feedback I received carried many important questions. The same week I was fortunate enough to read Mick Hume’s latest book titled Trigger Warning: Is the fear of being offensive killing free speech?
So let’s take the issue of speech a little further — first with reference to Zaid Hamid and then generally.
One viewpoint which is being relied on to refuse support for Zaid Hamid’s rights is this: his ideas were perpetrating conspiracy theories in Pakistan, he was misleading people, spreading hate and so he got what he deserved. I have only one response to that: “karma”, last time I checked, is not a legal argument for denying someone their rights. On a more serious note, fundamental rights accrue to us not because we are benevolent but because we are human beings. All accused deserve due process.
Now, anyone would be well within their rights to say that Zaid Hamid should be checked if inciting violence. But simply saying that Hamid incited violence and specifically proving it are two different things. Just because we disagree with his speech does not and cannot mean he is inciting immediate mayhem. In any case, his arrest in Saudi Arabia had nothing to do with inciting violence. He was arrested for criticising the regime. That in itself should get us all riled up. We love criticising those who govern us — and we love the freedom to do so.
The freedom to question those in power is one of the most basic and essential freedom — it is underpinned by the most basic human trait: our ability to communicate ideas and persuade our peers.
We must not assume that any fervent enunciation of views, no matter how radical, is a call to violence. The first step is to remember the famous words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: “every idea is an incitement.” Think about that statement for a minute. Holmes had that quality: he said things that deserve to be taken in with reflection.
Now, when should we check or disallow speech? My answer, based on case-law from the United States, is when there is a clear and present danger of immediate violence. There are two elements: (i) the danger must be clear and present with (ii) there being a strong likelihood of immediate violence. Now the next logical question would be: why wait till things get too far? The answer to this lies in the dangers of acting too soon. We have a choice of either chilling and restricting speech at its inception (out of fear that it will incite violence) or we can fight the broader war of ideas that make certain violent ideas irrelevant.
Part of the solution, of course, also rests with effective law enforcement. If a mob driven by religious frenzy wants to torch homes of members of another faith, you will achieve little by muting speech: the mob will still act even if there is no one to incite it with a rousing speech. The reason? The discourse around them allows that ‘freedom’ to perpetrate violence — and lack of effective discourse to counter hate, coupled with state’s failures of law enforcement contribute to that.
Hence, our concern for preventing incitement to violence through speech must not be confused with the issue of protecting human lives. Any prosecution for incitement to violence will take place long after the issue of mob violence is dealt with on the ground.
Most acts of mob violence in Pakistan in the recent past had little to do with one-speech-on-the-spot inciting violence and everything to do with a hateful mentality. Hateful speeches are made almost every week in this country but that does not cause immediate violence. The violence itself is based on the promise of a weak state and the lack of effective counter-arguments in general discourse.
Therefore, the harder battle is the battle of ideas rather than locking people up for airing disturbing viewpoints.
The defence of one’s right to air repulsive views, however, says nothing about the currency that repulsive views should command. Human dignity is precious and we must all do our utmost to check and defeat ideas that attack human dignity — in any way, shape or form. By defending the rights of someone like a Zaid Hamid we are not endorsing his views. We are only calling on everyone to join in the discourse and defeat his ideas. But here is the other thing about his ideology: it does not get imprisoned with him and that should remind us how important it is to populate the marketplace of ideas with viewpoints that advance, rather than thwart, freedom and human dignity. There is no dearth of “social commentators” in this country, whether it’s film stars or pop-star-turned-clerics, who will advocate patriarchy, misogyny and discrimination against minorities — seven days a week, 365 days a year.
The problem is not Zaid Hamid, the problem is the mindset. By calling on certain viewpoints to be banned or banished from the public eye, we will not eliminate hatred. We will just push it under the rug to fester till it explodes. Ideas are more potent than drugs; you need not carry them on you to be intoxicated. And the only anti-dote to ideas spreading hate is a powerful, and inclusive, counter-argument.
Principles, if they are real, should apply when it is most inconvenient to stand by them. If our apparent support for cause of free speech goes something like, “I support free speech but…” then we are, as per Mick Hume’s fantastic book, perpetrating a free speech fraud.
Zaid Hamid may be behind bars — I find that repulsive — but some are celebrating that. His ideas, however, will continue to infect this society. And adding to that infection is the refusal of the bulk of the population to hear things they find repulsive. The biggest casualty, and yet the only one that matters, is freedom.
This article was published with the title Perpetrating the free speech fraud in the June 26, 2015 issue of The News on Sunday.