Why democracy and the right to dissent are inseparable

In India, those who express dissent against any popular opinion/views get labeled “cynical”, or even “anti-national”—be it the Anna Hazare movement or plebiscite for Kashmir. We often forget democracy is dialectical, and must arrive at the truth through exchange of logical arguments.

Some years ago, while watching a documentary on Prof. Noam Chomsky, I learned about “The Faurisson Affair”. This opened up new horizons then, and still continues to deepen my understanding of the debate surrounding “the freedom of speech”.

In February 1981, Noam Chomsky wrote an article in The Nation – “His right to say it” – following a controversy which came to be known as “The Faurisson Affair”. His article responded to “the torrents of ink” spilled, especially in Europe, criticizing the stance he took to defend French academic and Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson’s freedom of speech.

Faurisson, widely condemned for denying the existence of homicidal gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps, the authenticity of The Diary of Anne Frank, and writer Elie Wiesel’s account of wartime sufferings (as Wikipedia puts it), had inserted Chomsky’s essay “Some Elementary Comments on the Rights of Freedom of Expression” without the latter’s knowledge or permission into his book. Although Faurisson was subsequently prosecuted, fined, and dismissed from his academic post, this controversy erupted and spilled out beyond the French boundaries.

It gained significance, I presume, mainly because of this towering intellectual’s presence in it and later, his refusal to cow down to outbursts dubbing him “anti-semitic” in many corners of the world. He could have walked away easily from this painful episode saying the essay appeared in the book without his consent. But he went ahead and defended Faurisson’s right to freedom of speech – “no matter how unpopular or fallacious” – in as resolute and definitive a voice and authority as his monumental body of work reveals.

Chomsky said: “But it is elementary that freedom of expression (including academic freedom) is not to be restricted to views of which one approves, and that it is precisely in the case of views that are almost universally despised and condemned that this right must be most vigorously defended. It is easy enough to defend those who need no defense or to join in unanimous (and often justified) condemnation of a violation of civil rights by some official enemy.”

Those interested can Google for reams and reams of arguments and counter-arguments in favour of and against Noam Chomsky pertaining to this issue.

But you may ask, “Why now?” Why would I want to know why one French professor denied the Holocaust and how another intellectual defended his right to speak his mind out? Better still, you could argue: “Why now, especially when India has savoured this historic moment, thanks to Anna Hazare and his team?”; “This is not a ‘Chomsky moment’, for god’s sake, it is Anna’s!”

As a reader, you have all the right to say all this and press the “back” button to read something else. But it is this – the right to choice, the right to speak, the right to dissent, etc. – is what forms the kernel of this argument.

At the outset, given the present scenario in India, it seems inevitable to declare that this argument relies on the current euphoric situation only for its starting point, but goes on to defend every neutral, pro-, and anti-stance or comment to anything that a society witnesses, by every single individual – be it a minor or a major, a man or a woman, educated or uneducated, literate or illiterate, a publicly avowed intellectual or a closeted intellectual, etc. And of course, be it the Anna Hazare moment or the Narmada Bachao movement.

A lot of public scorn was heaped upon those who deviated from the popular sentiment that kept the Anna protest going, apart from his own determination and obstinacy. In my opinion, public outcry to one particular article by one particular writer (yes, you guessed it right) – Ms Arundhati Roy – took the cake in its acerbity. What I, as a writer, although not of her calibre, found most disappointing is the fact that while the media creates and keeps a lot space for itself for such debates, it cavalierly dismisses, blocks, and blacklists anything that goes against its grain. TV cock-fights aid this tactical manoeuvre quite well by shutting off every dissenting voice. Whether to whip up frenzy or to muzzle voices, all it takes is a piece of modern microphone. Having arrogated untrammelled powers to itself to further “public good”, the modern media cannot accept a remote possibility that there can be dispassionate and honest views beyond TV studios or newspaper editorial precincts.

What also remains little understood whenever a public debate/argument erupts in a democracy like ours with its unmatched diversity is that there can be, indeed should be, as many disparate views and arguments. To wish it to be homogeneous, or to argue for the same, is to wish for a dead society.

For what it’s worth, dissenting individuals open up the other side of the argument, usually drowned out by mass media hysteria, which may even be validated and accepted by future generations. If not us. If not now.

So were Voltaire’s words, spoken two centuries ago, which Prof. Chomsky dug out for intellectual support: “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.”

(Pic source: internet)

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