What Emperor Ashoka knew about free speech

Should members of one religious community have a right to freely criticise other religious communities? Why not? Indeed, they must. Should this right be absolute? No right is absolute, but if our speech never upsets other groups, then why have it as a right? So, does discussion on the subject end here? No, because having a right is different from exercising it. So we need to ask if there are circumstances when it is wise not to, when it is better to waive its exercise instead? And if we feel compelled to criticise others, to ask in what form we should do so?

Should there not be some informal social norms, an ethos that helps us judge when and how to exercise the right to criticise other groups?

One thinker who squarely addressed the issue of norms of free speech was Emperor Ashoka in third century B.C.E. This should not surprise us. For a start, there was great religio-philosophical diversity in his time (followers of Vedic Brahmanism, Upanishadic philosophers, Jains, Ajivikas, Buddhists, to name just a few groups).

Message for the ages

These included those who made ritual sacrifice central to their ethic and those who didn’t; those who believed in gods and goddesses and those who did not; those who thought ritual sacrifice was sufficient for a good life and those who differed; those who believed in the theory of karma and others who didn’t; those who evaluated karma negatively (to act is to acquire demerit) and those who did not; those who affirmed and those who denied radical asceticism; those who linked self-fulfilment to compassion towards others and those who did not. This deep diversity must have generated conflict, particularly because Ashoka tried to ensure that all these groups lived together, sharing the same public domain, rather than live separately in ghettoes.

What form did conflicts take? In Ashoka’s time, writing was virtually non-existent. Everyone lived in a vibrant oral culture. The entire complex of Art, Philosophy, and ‘Religion’ — poetry, our deepest metaphysical thoughts, acts honouring gods and goddesses — were spoken, composed, recited, sung, chanted and heard. Words were believed to have magical potency. They could beckon gods to help us tide over problems, create something out of nothing, empower or disempower others, turn them into stone, even kill them. They could be weapons or an elixir — soothe or cause grievous hurt, bring us together or pull us apart.

In such a strong oral culture, social conflict frequently took the form of verbal duels, speech fights, word-wars, verbal tongue-lashing of adversaries in intellectual combats. Moreover, vitriolic reciprocal name-calling existed alongside fulsome expression of self-praise and excessive bragging about one’s own prowess.

Managing the tongue

If words fall off the tongue effortlessly, tumble out inadvertently and, what is worse, carelessly, it is imperative that unguarded speech be checked, that words be enunciated with great care and thought in public.

And that is exactly what Ashoka advised — free speech must be regulated by vācāgati (the artful management of the tongue), a social norm of a specific kind of samyama (self-restraint). While coexisting religious communities might invariably find each other irksome, this negative response, Ashoka argued, must not be privatised or repressed. It may enter the public but only on meeting certain conditions.

To begin with, speech critical of others may be freely expressed only if there are good reasons to do so. Second, even when good reasons exist for criticism, one may criticise only on appropriate occasions. And finally, even on an appropriate occasion, one must never be immoderate. Critique must never belittle or humiliate others. Only moderate criticism on appropriate public occasions is justified. Thus, there is a multi-layered, ever-deepening restraint on negative speech against others — self-restraint for the sake of others.

With this, Ashoka had evolved an original norm of civility, but he did not stop here. He further asserted that one must not extol one’s religion/philosophy without good reason. Undue praise of one’s community is as morally objectionable as unmerited criticism of the other.

Moreover, even when there is good reason to praise one’s own perspective, it too should be done only on appropriate occasions, and even then, never immoderately. Excessive self-glorification is a way to make others feel small. Indeed, blaming other groups out of devotion to one’s own world view and unreflective, uncritical self-praise, argued Ashoka, damages one’s own community. By offending and thereby estranging others, such speech undermines the capacity for mutual interaction and possible influence. Thus, there must an equally be a multi-textured, ever-deepening restraint on oneself — self-restraint for the sake of one’s own self.

A shared ethos

For Ashoka, our duties towards others cannot be neatly separated from the virtues we cultivate in ourselves. Our moral concern for others can’t be hived off from our ethical regard for ourselves. So, if Ashoka were alive today, he would argue that a crucial precondition of exercising one’s right to the free criticism of other groups is a robust ethos of self-restraint. A social norm of civility in public speech is a perfect antidote to the mutual estrangement between communities now creeping into our society.