Freedom without a centre

The liberal centre has no political voice as parties mistakenly do not see its potential

India daily abridges its right to be called a liberal democracy. There is a virtual contagion of attacks on art and free speech. How are we to understand this? How do we square this intolerance with the astonishing energy, creativity and contention that we are also seeing unleashed at different levels of society? Are we on the path to greater intolerance or do the underlying trends tell a different story?

At a moment when art is being targeted, film stars are not safe, 15-year-old girls are being asked to pay a horrendous social price for creating a rock band and political dissent is being suppressed, the future of free expression looks very bleak indeed. But it is important to diagnose this malaise correctly. Rather than assume that it portends a more intolerant society, it could be the case that society is actually getting more tolerant. It is the state and the political structures that do not understand these profound changes.

Mark Twain once said that Americans have the most perfect right to freedom of speech, but also the good sense never to use it. The deep truth in his remark was that often free speech seems easy to defend when the underlying mechanisms of social control are strong: speech seems safe when its limits are not tested too much. We often underestimate the degree to which even in the most liberal of democracies, freedom of speech seems safe because its limits are not tested. In the US, for example, a panoply of self-restraints does not push the limits of free expression as much as you might expect: it is, for example, a very taciturn culture when it comes to religion. So the fact that India is experiencing more contention around free speech could be a sign that inhibiting social restraints are finally beginning to wear off. This is largely a good thing, but it will generate the appearance of more conflict.

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