Salman Rushdie’s interview last week has evoked some strong reactions. Some readers were not in agreement with his contention that there is no right not to be offended. It is pertinent here to recollect a couple of paragraphs from that interview before I spell out my reading of the editorial guiding principles of liberal media in general, and this newspaper in particular.
Salman Rushdie says: “The world is full of things that upset people. But most of us deal with it and move on and don’t try and burn the planet down. There is no right in the world not to be offended. That right simply doesn’t exist. In a free society, an open society, people have strong opinions, and these opinions very often clash. In a democracy, we have to learn to deal with this. And this is true about novels, it’s true about cartoons, it’s true about all these products. A question I have often asked is, ‘What would an inoffensive political cartoon look like?’ What would a respectful cartoon look like? The form requires disrespect and so if we are going to have in the world things like cartoons and satire, we just have to accept it as part of the price of freedom.”
Salman Rushdie’s observations are not frivolous and they remind us of the need to protect the space to hear what we do not like or endorse ourselves. His life of surviving bigotry since the fateful Valentine’s Day Fatwa in 1989 is a key not just to understand the framework for concepts such as freedom of expression, artistic freedom and autonomous space for creativity, but also to comprehend myriad challenges faced by media. While the governing rules for literature and journalism are not similar, they are also not totally unrelated as both contribute towards expansion of the public discourse on a continuous basis reminding us of new possibilities and new pitfalls.
Liberal media confronts multiple forces on a daily basis: neo-liberal economic policies, ill-liberal social and political practices, intolerance, the scourge of stereo-typing, criminal libel laws interpreted in a narrow and restrictive manner, an assertive majority that erases the democratic will of the minorities and above all, the triumphalism of the victor. The core of liberal media is the respect for plurality, diversity and understanding ‘the other’. It resists the idea of a monochromatic, highly centralised top-down model, and strives to generate political dynamics where the bottom-up approach is combined with the articulation of aspirations of the people.
Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton, is a departure from regular autobiographies in many ways. It is not in first person singular, but in third person. It tells the story of a man who had to assume a name coined from the first names of two of the greatest writers — Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekov. I was profoundly struck by one paragraph where Rushdie explains how intolerant groups use the power of information technology to wreak vengeance on writers who have a different world view.
He writes: “Modern information technology was being used in the service of retrograde ideas: the modern was being turned against itself by the medieval, in the service of a world view that disliked modernity itself — rational, reasonable, innovative, secular, sceptical, challenging, creative modernity, the antithesis of mystical, static, intolerant, stultifying faith… History, the forward progress of peoples through time, was itself the enemy, more than any mere infidels or blasphemers.”
Indian media is also not free from attack from a section that wants to put the clock back in terms of equality in social, economic, gender and religious practices. This section finds affirmative action and corrective measures threatening its hierarchical world. And, strangely this intolerant section uses the ideas of tolerance and plurality, representational character and dialogue, to demand space for its narrow agenda.
And, exactly, this is where the concept of editorial judgment comes into play. Can a liberal media cede space to hate-speech? Can it encourage ideas that are the anti-thesis of co-existence in multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious society? Where does satire end and vilification begin? How does the media deal with the accusation of hate-speech by people who are clearly partisan? Editorial judgment is the tool used to sift hate-speech and vitriol from criticism and counter-narratives. While it rejects the former, it enthusiastically embraces the latter as a liberal newspaper should.