Freedom of expression and the search for truth

There has been condemnation of the action from various quarters.

By dismissing Prof Joseph from service, the college management has attacked the freedom of thought and expression, the very foundation on which universities and colleges are premised. Joseph is faulted for choosing a ‘politically incorrect’ passage from a text prescribed by the university in setting a question paper.

In politics, commerce and business one needs to speak a language different from the classrooms. If one is politically found wrong, he may not win the elections and for traders there may not be profits. There is no such imposition of norms on teachers since the very purpose of their existence is to assist the young to discover the truth.

Prof Joseph’s explanation on his question had clarified the issue. But those with vested interest have twisted facts. The teachers and non-teaching staff of his college and Nirmala College, Muvattupuzha, have rightly protested by going on mass leave against the move. Surprisingly, the students of the college had also joined their teachers in protest. The teachers’ union in Kerala has announced its decision to take out a march to the Newman College on Sept 14. The message in the protests is clear: The civil society is not happy with the dismissal.

As far as universities and colleges are concerned what is at stake is freedom of thought, expression and tolerance, key components for the growth of knowledge. Institutes of higher education cannot be treated as glorified high schools where facts are presented and repeated by students.

They have to generate new knowledge and students need to reflect to arrive at the truth. There cannot be fixed answers to questions. Speech at times can be harmful. What kind of speech is harmful? Hate speech, speech aimed at divisiveness and speech with pre-determined purpose of hurting individuals and communities is harmful and needs to be regulated. Prof Joseph cannot be accused of any of these.

Other kinds of speech and expression should not be regulated if we desire to bring out thinking people from institutions of higher learning. We live in a world of pluralism. Life is an encounter with enormous diversity. People hold different views, opinions, beliefs and practices. While respecting all those, freedom of thought and expression helps to confront our own narrow world with what others are saying and tolerate views not keeping with our own. How else can we build a tolerant society?

Centres of higher education are meant to help young people to enter into a world of critical thought. Unless and until they are presented with different world-views, they will not be able to arrive at choices. Tolerance of free speech helps to realise that no one has the right to impose their way of living on anyone else.

Unacceptable in a democracy

Causing physical harm for expressing one’s views or dismissing an employee for expression of thought is totally unacceptable in a democracy. Thinking and expressing are not anti-democratic activities. There is a rule of law in this country. The least that was expected from those who chopped the hand of the professor was to take him to court and the court could have decided if he was guilty. Not to abide by the rule of law is an attack on democracy.

We may have strong objections to someone’s expressions but nobody has a right to impose their ideas on the rest. Why did the management act in the way it has acted? Is it the fear, insecurity or pure opportunism? Without free expression, society as a whole would remain bereft of the truth. It is only through the free exchange of ideas and opinions between dissenting individuals that the truth or falsity of an opinion can be ascertained.

The first issue is whether what the question the lecturer asked was defamatory. To deny even hearing him or to attribute motives in spite of an explanation by the professor would mean that society hardly cares for the truth. It is only through listening to divergent opinions, free and frank discussions, truth can be arrived at. Some others may argue that truth is not so important than maintaining peace. What kind of peace do we desire to maintain in a democratic society? Peace cannot be at the expense of opportunism in any society. Without freedom of speech and expression, there cannot be a vibrant democratic system.

That is why in liberal democracies free speech must enjoy state protection. Any restrictions by groups of any kind would violate individual rights. When individual thought is attacked, in a liberal democracy, the state has to side by the individual instead of remaining as a silent spectator and punish those who indulge in physical violence.
What we need to challenge at this juncture are the silent prejudices, the unspoken hatred and the inaudible threats. If these are allowed to accumulate they may destroy the very foundation of our democracy.

(The writer is the principal of St Joseph’s College, Bangalore)

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