On Sunday, the idea of freedom of expression was subjected to an elementary test in the Indian publishing arena. As always ‘liberals’ showed how little they comprehended or cared about the most basic tenet of democracy.
It all started when Bloomsbury India became the recipient of a ferocious backlash from an online mob after a purported advertisement of the launch of its book ‘Delhi Riots 2020’. The leaders of the mob were some of the who’s who from the news media and literary world. They pride themselves for being the last among liberal voices of dissent against a ‘tyrannical’, ‘intolerant’ and ‘fascist’ Modi government that is supposed to be trampling ruthlessly upon our democratic values with every passing second.
The virtual book launch was to feature authors of the book Sonali Chitalkar and Monika Arora. Also on the guest list was the editor of OpIndia Nupur J Sharma, BJP Leader Kapil Mishra, and film director Vivek Agnihotri. The BJP’s National General Secretary Bhupendra Yadav was supposed to launch the book.
The first, disgraceful surrender had Bloomsbury India issuing a denial claiming that the authors did not inform them about the virtual event and that their logo was used without their knowledge. It is surprising that a major publishing house would not be aware of a promotional push for one of their major books. But let’s give them the benefit of doubt, perhaps they are not interested in selling books and earning profits, hence leave it to the authors to do the promotion all by themselves.
The subsequent day Bloomsbury India totally capitulated to the Twitter ‘liberal’ mob as they withdrew publication of Delhi riots book out of ‘deep sense of responsibility towards society’. Interestingly it is publishing a book on occupiers of Shaheen Bagh. Based on the description it appears to be a sympathetic representation that calls it “a moving tale of the brave women of Shaheen Bagh-patient, persevering, and unbelievable peaceniks-who raised their voice for the deprived and the discriminated”
The self-appointed custodians of freedom of speech decided that the virtual event provided a forum for ‘bigots’ to propagate ‘hate’. While they were unable to prevent the event from occurring they did their best to discredit it and scare the publisher away.
Once again ‘liberals’ conflate the contents of what is being expressed with the actual right to express. For freedom of expression to work, it has to be absolute. This includes the right to opine, to criticise, to offend, to insult, to ridicule, to satirize, to express hateful and obscene ideas and to ridicule anything under the sun including the state, religion, public figures, the formidable fourth estate and even the almighty (if he or she exists).
What is hateful to one may be compelling to another. What is prejudiced to one may be a fresh perspective to another. What is disgusting to one can be riveting to another. What is pornographic to one may be artful to another. What is crass to one may be hilarious to another. What is crude to one may be hard hitting and engaging to another. A bigot to one may be a maverick to another. A liberal to one can be a fascist to another. A ‘rabid right-winger’ to one is a voice of reason to another. A left-wing loony to one may be the sole voice of hope to another. We cannot allow personal taste to dictate who and what is permitted in any forum of ideas.
Most importantly it the healthy exchange and debate about diverse ideas, not echo chambers, that facilitates progress as we learn to understand and empathize with the opposing point of view. Also denying an individual his right to express is denying yourself the right to be exposed to it.
Freedom of expression emanates from freedom of thought and it is often these thoughts that have led to reforms in society. All the great books, works of art, inventions and discoveries would have probably been impossible if someone somewhere, had not dared to be different and more importantly dared to express this difference of opinion without fear.
It is this solitary contrarian voice that begins like a flickering flame but with the support it results in illuminating everybody. If we become a society that sticks to convention we cease to grow.
Back to Bloomsbury India, even if one accepts the premise that the book was hateful and misleading, the ‘liberal’ mob should have taken it upon themselves to either engaged in a debate with the members at the launch or to publish a book that systematically counters the contents of the book. In other words they should have won on the strength of the content of arguments.
It is almost certain that the ‘liberal’ mob has not read the book but decided purely on the basis of the attendees of the event, who they disagree with and whom they despise, that the book was not acceptable.
It appears that ‘liberal’ mob prefer the gentle chimes of an echo chamber instead of what they perceive to be the cacophony of opposing perspectives. They fail to realize that if they desire to win in the arena of ideas, the only way is to engage in discussion and debate with an opposing perspective.
In this particular case, they should have urged the organizers to invite them to the virtual event to engage in a debate. They could have organized another event to counter what was said at the launch.
The ‘liberal’ mob always claims to be standing against fascism, perhaps they fail to see the irony that it was fascists who suppressed opposing views and Nazis that burned books that they considered dissenting.
The good news is there not every liberal joined the mob. There were a few liberals who have condemned Bloomsbury India’s shameful capitulation.
The truth is the ‘liberal’ mob probably fear that the ideas expressed in the virtual meeting may be persuasive and made an appeal to people, hence instead of engaging they shut it down and feel happy about themselves.
Bloomsbury India ought to be ashamed of themselves, they should have stood by their authors. The fact that they agreed to publish the book means that they were aware of its contents. It would seem obvious that they did have the means to substantiate the veracity of its contents.
Clearly they feared larger repercussions from the online mob i.e. the risk of being ‘cancelled’ which can have major financial implications. But if we go down that route, we will soon reach a point where there will be total submission to a particular perspective. Perhaps that is what the ‘protectors of democracy’ want?
Bloomsbury India should have left it to the public to decide if the book was worthy. They should have invited the opposing perspectives to publish their book. They had an opportunity to be an exemplary proponent of democratic values. But alas the blew it.
To conclude, here a quote (perhaps cliché) that is often attributed to Voltaire but actually emanated from English author Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
One would hope that every ‘liberal’ makes these very profound words, the fundamental axiom of their being.