It’s not freedom of speech that’s in danger, but the art of conversation

From students to business persons to cricketers to Members of Parliament to those on the street who voted for them, seemingly every person has had their say on the matter.

Written by Nimish Dubey | Published: March 1, 2016 12:24 pm
JNU students agitate for the release of students arrested on sedition charges on the university campus in New Delhi on Wednesday. PTI Photo JNU students agitate for the release of students arrested on sedition charges, at the JNU campus in New Delhi. PTI Photo

There has been a lot of talk about the freedom of expression in just about every place possible over the past couple of weeks, from university campuses to media houses to Parliament. From students to business persons to cricketers to Members of Parliament to those on the street who voted for them, seemingly every person has had their say on the matter.

And the very fact that such a discussion has been taking place proves that the freedom of expression is in no danger at all. For, were it being endangered, many of the recent commentaries – and perhaps even their commentators – would have been removed from the eyes of the public.

No, this will disappoint a lot of the Doomsday pundits, but the freedom of expression is in no real danger. What IS in danger is something just as – and perhaps even more – important: the art of conversation.

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The Cambridge Dictionary defines a “conversation” as “(a) talk between two or more people in which thoughts, feelings, and ideas are expressed, questions are asked and answered, or news and information is exchanged.” While in dictionary mode, we also looked up the meaning of the word “expression.” It means “the act of saying what you think or showing how you feel using words or actions.”

Now, just cast your mind back to what you have been hearing and reading over the whole JNU fracas and the events that followed in its wake. You will notice that there certainly has been no curtailment of the “act of saying what you think or showing how you feel using words of actions.” So, in a purely literal sense, expression remains a relatively free bird in the Indian republic.

What, however, has been largely missing is “conversation” on the matter. For be it news anchors in studios (whether packed with people or kept jet black for impact) or banner waving students or paper brandishing members of parliament, hardly any one has shown any sort of consideration for the opinion of the opposite side. Those in favor of the JNU students’ actions have branded those who oppose them as “bhakts” (a term once associated with a devotee of the Lord and now supposed to reflect an allegiance to the Hindu Right) and “narrow minded”, while those against the JNU students are branding them “anti-nationals” and “leftist traitors.” Even the media, which by its very name should act as a medium of communication, has been taking rather extreme sides.

It is this extremism that is most disturbing in the current day and age. It is one thing to say what one thinks and feels, quite another to refuse to even consider that those against you might be right, or worse, to dismiss whatever they say as arrant nonsense. And it is the latter that has been happening non-stop for a few weeks now – one side says a tape is doctored, the other says it was not; one side says that the other is a traitor, and vice versa… Oh no, we have had no shortage of expression. What has been conspicuous by its absence is conversation. What has been absent altogether is the basic decency if not to consider the arguments against a stance, then at least to give it a fair hearing.

No, it has been all “if you are not with us, you are against us” for the past few weeks. And if you want to know how pernicious that can make a situation, just ask the US, which took a similar stance before wading forth into Iraq and Afghanistan. It is all very well to possess the freedom to say something. But it is of little value if no one listens to what is said.

We perhaps will never really know what happened that day in JNU. But we might get a better idea of events and definitely a better understanding of it, if the parties battling each other over it would just sit down together and instead of shouting, just listened to each other.

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