Hate speech in the time of a pandemic: Answer to malevolent, incendiary language is plurality, not censorship

Praveen Swami

From his offices inside the bleak walls of the Carcere dei Penitenziati palace in Palermo, the great inquisitor Luis de Paramo seemed to barely notice the Black Death had begun to sweep across the Spanish empire in 1596, killing hundreds of thousands. His mind was fixed on an even more dangerous disease that threatened his world, corrupting not just the bodies of men, but their minds. "The holy offices of the Inquisition annihilated the heretical plagues," he smugly recorded two years later.

God reserved his worst torments, Paramo solemnly wrote, for the heresy: Nestor's tongue was eaten by worms; Marcus Ephesus reduced to excreting "ordure from his mouth"; Calvin's body overrun by great swarms of lice as he coughed out blood €" this before the eternal torments of hell. Protecting people from poisonous ideas, thus, was at least as important as guarding against plagues.

Inside the dungeons of the inquisition, the agents of heresy €" intellectuals, witches, dissident priests and nuns €" were quarantined to secure the health of the Kingdom of God.

As the greatest pandemic in a century continues its grim progress, India is seeing the unfolding of an unprecedented campaign to ensure the Republic's intellectual hygiene.

Thousands are facing prosecution for something they wrote or said: Left-wing intellectuals and journalists like Siddharth Varadarajan, right-wing television anchors like Arnab Goswami, Islamic activists, Hindu nationalists, even plain-vanilla panicked citizens. For years now, the criminal justice system has become ever more focused on silencing thought and speech; a climax could be nearing.

Luis de Paramo would have found this world almost indistinguishable from his own. For any democracy, this is evil news. India needs much more free speech €" even evil, toxic speech €" not less.

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Even though the term has become entrenched in public debate, the idea of hate speech rests on less-than-firm ground. Bengaluru Member of Parliament Tejasvi Surya's now-infamous tweet €" "95 percent Arab women have never had an orgasm in the last few hundred years", attributed to the gadfly anti-Islamist agitator Tarek Fateh €" is a useful prism to examine the issue. Erased from the internet after furious protests from Saudi and Kuwaiti commentators and demands for the Prime Minister's intervention, the tweet has been cited as a textbook example of hate speech.

Feminist writing in the Middle-East, though, has made much the same argument for decades. In a 2005 paper, for example, anthropologists Abdessamad Dialmy and Allon Uhlmann examined the cultural memes that ensured "the sexuality of the respectable wife is confined to satisfying her husband's desire and producing a large number of male offspring".

In the Fez region, Dialmy and Uhlman noted, a proverb held that "if the wife were to move during intercourse, she would be divorced because her movement would indicate the presence of desire and pleasure".

Fatah's polemic is an agit-prop rendering of the work of generations of Middle-East feminists €" among them Mai Ghoussoub, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Haleh Afshar, Haideh Moghissi, and Hammed Shahidian €" who have long critiqued the use of religion and culture to repress women's  freedoms.

"The Muslim man conceives woman as uncontrollable and untameable: a being who can therefore only be subdued by repression," Ghoussoub famously argued in a seminal essay in The New Left Review, back in 1987. "It is difficult to utter your frustrations if a veil seals your lips".

Little intellectual insight is needed to see that Surya €" like Fatah €" is a propagandist. Neither, for example, acknowledges that feminists have also shown how Hindu texts and cultural norms €" like Christian and Buddhist texts €" sustain tyrannical phallocracies.

The lines between crude propaganda and serious critique aren't, however, as well-etched as we might imagine.

In 1924, the Arya Samaj activist Mahashe Rajpal published Rangila Rasul €" in Urdu, 'the colourful prophet' €" a polemic on the Prophet Muhammad's sexual mores. Lower courts condemned Rajpal to prison. Lahore High Court judge Dalip Singh, however, reasoned that "if the fact that Musalmans resent attacks on the Prophet was to be the measure, then a historical work in which the life of the prophet was considered and judgment passed on his character by a serious historian might [also] come within the definition".

Legislators responded to the Lahore High Court's admonition by amending the Indian Penal Code to outlaw "deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class". That law continues to be used to ban an array of serious books, and persecute atheists and heterodox religious sects.

Propagandist polemic, it could be argued, can be distinguished from serious speech because of their intent and consequences. This argument, however, leads to another cul-de-sac.  The purpose of all political text, after all, is to incite. The Bible, the Quran, the Mahabharata and the works of Karl Marx and Mao Zedong have all been cited as inspiration for large-scale killing at various points in history; so, too, have Batman and Catcher in the Rye. Abul Ala Maududi's Jihad has indeed been read as a manifesto for violence by Islamists €" but millions of others have encountered the text without being moved to swat a fly.

To characterise Surya's tweet, or other chauvinist propaganda, as a form of illegitimate speech is to make a moral judgment about politics €" valid or otherwise. To allow moral judgment to decide whether speech ought to be illegitimate, history tells us, ought to lead to perdition.

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For decades, the case against free speech has assailed by pointing to the apparent role of mass media in engendering genocides and mass violence. The role of Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines in inciting genocide in Rwanda is often cited as evidence for this claim. The rigorous empirical work of political scientist Scott Strauss, though, has demonstrated that that data does not show RTLM was "the principal vector by which the genocide spread and by which most ordinary Rwandans chose to participate in genocidal violence".

Indeed, scholar Mary Franks, has pointed out, laws outlawing "propounding wickedness or inciting hatred" are now used by the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda People's Front to persecute of the very journalists and NGOs who fought the genocide. Leading opposition figure Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza €" and her lawyer€"were imprisoned for arguing that communal reconciliation required acknowledging not only Tutsi victims, the primary target of the genocide, but also Hutu victims.

For Franks, the real problem in Rwanda lay in the fact that power actors held near-monopolies on discourse €" through Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines prior to the genocide, and through the shutting-down of dissenting media platforms thereafter. The answer to hate speech, she proposes, isn't silence: it's a loud, cacophonic media.

Lazy claims that the rise of German Fascism illustrates the power of toxic propaganda are similarly misleading. For one, Nazi propaganda grew despite the existence of the expansive hate speech laws of Weimar. Perhaps more important, Richard Evans' magisterial work shows us, Nazi propaganda failed to persuade anything resembling a majority of Germans before the coup of 1933. The hegemony of Nazi ideology was ensured by stamping out of all alternate voices and points of view.

In India, the case is often made that hate speech €" propagated and amplified through digital media €" has accelerated communalisation.

The evidence, though, is far from unambiguous. Even a cursory glance at Violette Graff and Juliette Galonnier's summary of communal riots shows that the intensity and frequency of communal violence in India has diminished €" not intensified. The largest chauvinist mass-mobilisations in India €" the Ram janmabhumi movement, for example, or the Kashmir jihad €" took place long before most homes even had a telephone.

Even though hate-speech is claimed to be sharpening the divisions between Hindus and Muslims €" engendering ghettoisation of the mind, as it were €" there's plenty of reason to be suspicious of such claims.

In a study of the 1974 riots in Delhi €" long before the evil influence of Facebook emerged €" three out of every 10 Hindus and almost two out of 10 Muslims, reported never even meeting with members of the other religious community in any social context €" political, casual, or even business. An investigation by the People's Union for Democratic Rights in 1987, similarly, noted that old Delhi was sundered into caste and communal agglomerations whose inhabitants understood each other, in the main, through communal invective.

The rise of social media has done little other than to provide a new platform for voicing the long-held prejudices and hatreds of a society €" hatreds earlier voiced within the family, during social interactions, or in the village square. Put another way, hate speech is an artefact of a dysfunctional society, not its cause.

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India's urge to police 'thought crime impulses' predate the birth of the republic, the Rangila Rasul debates demonstrate. Less than two years after independence, though, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru amended the Constitution to carve out restrictions against free speech €" and embedded the inquisitor at the heart of the Indian state. Free speech, it was argued, made India vulnerable to the dangerous tides of communist propaganda and communal hatred; words could even explode into war with Pakistan.

The debris from those decisions is all around us. Wendy Doniger's provocative readings of Hindu text; Aubrey Menen's irreverent retelling of the Ramayana; DN Jha's The Myth of the Holy Cow, James Laine's history of Shivaji, or Paul Courtright's exploration of Hindu mythology's fraught sexuality. We still cannot read an uncensored text of the path-breaking Urdu collection Angaarey, proscribed in 1933.

Salman Rushdie, MF Husain and Taslima Nasreen are the best-known victims of the Indian inquisition, but they're not the only ones. The progressive cultural organisation Sahmat came under attack in 1993, merely for recording the existence of variant texts of the Ramayana in which Ram and Sita were siblings; Narendra Dabholkar and H Farook were assassinated.

Book-bans, prosecutions and killings have not, however, engendered pluralism: India remains a mosaic of warring religion and caste-based agglomerations, and the petty tyrannies which run them.

Propaganda, history teaches, succeeds only when it is unchallenged: The real answer to hate speech is plurality, not censorship. Ensuring that Indians hear a diversity of voices is a formidable challenge. Large swathes of the media, increasingly dependent since the 1980s on government advertising for survival, have surrendered their role as a space for the exchange of ideas. Efforts to create alternatives have, for the most part, floundered, with even élite audiences proving unwilling to pay for independent news and opinion.

The only kind of censorship which is legitimate in a democracy is the right each of us has to turn off our television sets. To give that power to the state is to assent to bodies, and minds, being broken on the wheel.

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