It's a bad, bad world

So let's not pretend being nice to all

Published: Tuesday 15 August 2006

-- the Union ministry of communications (moc) has plans for a blissful world, one in which lampooning or mockery shall be anathema. As part of its plans, it prohibited access to certain blogs and websites. It later revoked the ban when its impracticability became plain. Anyhow, the ban raised pertinent questions. The immediate ruse for the ministry's actions was that recalcitrant elements were spewing venom against a particular religion. Coming in wake of the recent blasts in Mumbai's trains, the ministry's directions have assumed a degree of rectitude -- even for many supporters of free speech.

Yes, religion is a sensitive matter in today's world. We can mock those who say that it snows in the Kalahari desert, we can criticise people for their political beliefs, we can deride the economic direction the world's taking, but religion is a totally different kettle of fish. Theology doesn't broach dissent. And that's where it's anathema to democracy.

Freedom of expression, including the freedom to poke fun at religion, is not just a hard-won human right, it's the defining freedom of democratic societies. When this freedom comes under threat, the job of governments should be to defend it. Unfortunately, the moc chose to act the other way.

But then what about sensitivity? Many who would otherwise defend free speech would also argue that the principle of "tolerance" requires that we take care not to offend religious sensitivities of others, as a matter of respect. But they forget that human good is contingent on free traffic in ideas including philosophy, economics, politics, and -- yes -- religion. Even the most sacred beliefs of people must be challenged, criticised, mocked. The truism that all opinions are not equal applies to religion as well.

Sensitivity cannot always ordain silence. Protecting free expression will sometimes require hurting the feelings of individuals or groups. And if one's views can't stand up to disrespectful criticism, what good are they? Mockery has a way of revealing just how stupid a belief is, or betraying just how stupid or intolerant the critic is. Imagine someone trying to mock the theory that the earth rotates around the sun: who will appear worse, the believer or the mocker?

The world is not sugar coated. And banning those who criticise religion won't turn it into one.

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