Free speech. Yes, we have heard about it. We claim to have it. It comes along with terms like free world, transfer of ideas, rights and tolerance. But, just like all things free, it comes with a tiny star on its top right corner, which leads to a legend somewhere, in some obscure edge, which reads – ‘Conditions Apply’.
Speech is certainly free. There are rights and laws guaranteeing it, in a multitude of constitutions across the globe. People have laid down their lives to keep its banner flying high. Humanitarian organizations and governments are striving relentlessly to uphold ‘free speech’ in a ‘free world’. Media is all for free speech. It is, in fact, their bread and butter. As you can see, you are free to say anything you wish to, as long as you are not espousing hate, not promoting violence and intolerance, not committing acts of slander and sedition and not threatening the society or community in any way.
One person’s or a group of persons’ legitimate opinions and ideas may be gravely offensive and even harmful to another person or group of persons. And going by the levels of intolerance in the free world, it may even have dire consequences for the mind behind that idea. In the case of the cartoonists from Charlie Hebdo, it was their lives. In the case of Devansh Mehta of St. Stephen’s College, it was his department award.
So should we stop having ideas at all? Is it time for a universal, one-size-fits-all approach to world affairs? One world, one idea? An antiquated thought in the 21st century, where economies are majorly driven by innovations and ideas! Or should we have ideas and not voice them, just because some people may not accept them? An equally absurd thought, suggestive of stagnant minds in a stagnant society!
Making free speech a cover for insensitive hate-mongering or vendetta against specific belief systems, religions, ethnicities, cultures or practices, is not freedom. Instead, it is a blatant abuse of the power freedom grants a person. When blended with the threads of morality, free speech becomes a beautiful fabric which can serve to bring together this world and not further divide it. For this fabric to remain one and not become a blanket stifling specific people, tolerance for someone else’s point of view is equally important. For the peaceful coexistence of contrasting ideas and evolution of novel thought, people must learn to listen to what other people have to say.
Amidst all the conundrum of ensuring free speech, all the laws, ordinances, protests, debates, memorandums, notices and what not, free speech has merely become an elaborate farce. For this freebie, morality and tolerance are the only two conditions which must apply.