08 February 2012

Censorship Rumblings in the World’s Biggest Democracy

Worrying and disappointing news from the sub-continent today.
It appears that a court in New Delhi has given 22 internet based companies (including heavyweights such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and Blogspot) two weeks to present plans for policing their various networks for photographs, videos or text that they deem to be “anti-religious or anti-social”.
Google India already began their cull of sites on Monday, not citing any specific examples of what was taken down, but asserting that it would be “willing to go after anything that violated local law or its own standards”.
India has always been a somewhat conservative country, so it isn't surprising to see its official’s religious views finding their way into their professional duties. But for a country that is hoping to use the information technology boon to help raise the living standards of its 1.2 billion strong population, such conservative religious views are invariably going to become a hindrance.
But it isn’t just the idea of censorship that gets me worried when reading about this latest development, but rather the odd rationale those in support of it employ and the dangerous arguments that are used to justify it.
Rationale such as this:
“Indian political leaders in support of the new rules say that their socially-conservative country has a long history of religious division and that publishing offensive material online presents a public danger.”
Now hang on here. Surely the greater public danger is the fact that such ‘religious division’ can be so readily counted upon as a source for reliable future violence. You shouldn’t seek to combat violent religious retaliations toward freedom of expression by halting the expression; you do it by countering those who not only silence people by force and the threat of violence, but who also seek to forestall anything that may offend their religious sensibilities from ever seeing the light of day.
This is the kind of dangerous argument and rationale that I am referring to; focusing not on the cause of the problem, but on seeking to avoid the problem by placating those who so readily turn to violence.
It’s like telling your kid not to behave a certain way, because then bullies will pick on them. No. You behave how you want to (provided it doesn’t hurt others), and be damned the consequences! It is the bullies who need to be confronted, and their way of behaving changed.
Unfortunately for us, the bullies in this real life example won’t change, and their claim to injury is purely in their minds. Injuries like this can be as capricious as they like, because they cause no real tangible harm, and they have no way of being quantified, so that those who claim to suffer for it, can do so with impunity and vigour.
Such claims should not only not be taken seriously, but also put under scrutiny as their origin is generally a hidden motivation, and not just a response to outside influence (as real injuries are).

Internet access in India is relatively uncensored, especially in contrast to its northern neighbour China. But the Indian Communications Minister Sachin Pilot, displayed a worrying understanding of what censorship entails when he sought to assure people that "there is no question of any censorship" relating to this new court decision, but that at any rate all internet companies “have to operate within the laws of the country”.
So there is no question of censorship, you just have to obey the laws that detail what you can, and cannot display on the internet in that country. So while the internet is relatively uncensored, the groundwork is being laid for a form of censorship to be enacted.
Further justifying the new rulings, the Communications Minister said “Anyone hurt by online content should be able to seek legal redress”. Really?
The idea of being hurt by online content sounds remarkably like a category mistake to me. The form of hurt he refers to here is simply that of sensibilities, and isn’t something that the state need to be in charge of policing.
The government however further claims that it has evidence regarding 21 sites it plans on prosecuting for the rather dubious offenses of “promoting enmity between classes and causing prejudice to national integration”.
Again, they are treating the wrong thing here when they focus on sites that promote enmity between classes, but in this case they should be looking at why class warfare in India remains at the state it is in.
"We must stop people being offended by this caste problem. Perhaps if we censor the sign......."  - Faulty rationale
One wonders what this same style of online censorship would yield in Australia. Perhaps if I took enough offense, I wouldn't have to see Facebook pages exclaiming “Refugees go Home”, or other such xenophobic nonsense. Though I don’t think I would be so lucky, as no doubt the conservative religious forces in Australia would outdo me in their ability to be offended by things that don’t affect them directly (like perhaps gay people being married or the ridicule of mythical Bible characters).
Ouch! Can you feel the hurt that this offensive images exudes?
In case you were wondering what (beyond the mere possibility of offending sensitive people) has spurred on this recent move by the Indian Government, take a look at the examples that were recently brought to its attention.
The Associated Press reported that “Indian officials have been incensed by material insulting to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ruling Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi and religious groups, including illustrations showing Singh and Gandhi in compromising positions and pigs running through Mecca, Islam's holiest city”.
Shocking stuff indeed! Insulting politicians; how dare they.
The thought bubble octopus really makes me wish I read Hindi.
We should be worried when those in the public eye, in particular elected individuals, seek to be excised as a target for public satire, criticism and ridicule. But then again this same tactic was used for centuries to ensure that religions, in particular their adherents and their earthly institutions, were rendered immune to criticism; so perhaps we should not be so surprised.

These new capitulations by the government of India to those who seek offense (and I say seek, because offense seldom forces your participation) are already being capitalised upon by some Indian Muslims, who show the lengths they are willing to go to in order to try and stifle any opposition to their authoritarian worldview. Take a look at this quote from the same article mentioned above:
“Prosecutors, who sued on behalf of a Muslim religious leader who accused companies of hosting pages that disparage Islam, said they would provide the companies with all relevant documents. The court gave the companies 15 more days to report back”
So not only are the sites offensive, but those hosting them will find themselves squarely in the crosshairs of intolerance. This form of multilevel oppression is not uncommon from fundamentalist Muslims who find offense in the most banal of places. Just look at the furore that surroundedthe release of Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988, not only was the author himself threatened (and driven underground for years), but so to were “all those involved in its publication”. In the end this resulted in the murder of the book's Japanese translator and the near-deaths of another translator and one publisher.
For a more contemporary example, witness the anger that accompanied the printing of cartoons involving Mohammed in an obscure Danish newspaper, way back in 2005; you will see that thought the times change, the mindsets of those stuck in the Middle Ages remain steadfast.
Commenting on Islam’s prohibition of picturing Mohammed in their art, and their abstinence of things like pork, alcohol and in some cases music and dancing, Christopher Hitchens remarked “Very well then, let a good Muslim abstain rigorously from all these. But if he claims the right to make me abstain as well, he offers the clearest possible warning and proof of an aggressive intent.”
The Hitch may be dead, but his awesome words remain.
Surrendering to the possible offense of others isn’t just a slippery slope; it is an invitation for further advance. After all how can you be certain to remove all possible offensive actions? The only way to make certain that you will not offend others is to become what they want you to be. The only way to not offend a fundamentalist Christian is to believe in their version of the Bible, and attest as they do. The only human that would not offend a fundamentalist Muslim is one that adheres to their faith, and follows the rules they believe.
There is a simple solution to those who are offended by things they see on the internet, and it isn’t to sue the individuals who put it there, nor is it to block the apparently offensive materials, or kill those responsible.
It is to simply not look at it.
Your offense, as I have mentioned in previous posts, is your own personal thing to deal with. It’s not something people have to surrender to without recourse to rational debate.

Sure there might be examples of things we want to ban from the internet without it necessarily turning into censorship. We should do all we can to eliminate the perfusion of child porn on the internet for instance.
But to ban things from the internet just because they might cause offense to others goes one step too far. It concedes a fight with the very people we should be glad to fight against. It is a step back against the forces of intolerance that will never reciprocate for us any form of concession on their behalf.

Rant complete, let me know what you think in the comments below.


1 comment:

  1. plz koi manmohan ke children ka d n a test kare kya ye ishi 6kk ke bachhe hain ya