To Oppose All Forms of Bans in the Name of Democratic Values Is a Liberal Virtue

If public discourse is weaponised for political gain with incendiary rhetoric that dehumanises any so-called ‘other’, limits should be placed on freedom of expression. No value is greater than the dignity of vulnerable people.

The West Bengal government has banned the controversial Hindi film, The Kerela Story, which tells the fictional tale of women from Kerala who were forced to convert to Islam and join ISIS. Soon after the ban was declared, many left-liberals, friends among them, voiced their disagreement. They were upset and unhappy about the culture of banning a work of art that was considered contentious and provocative. India has a long, bad record of banning books, films and other forms of art with political content for political reasons. Some felt banning what they consider a bad film gives it an aura it does not deserve. The people in a democracy must be able to judge it for themselves. Banning can also be a timid act against what is considered political propaganda. By banning a film, you allow curiosity and interest to get more intense, and one-sided. The act of banning grants a film its negative prestige. 

Writer and professor at CSDS, Hilal Ahmed, tweeted on May 6 that banning a film was “not the answer to the problem of misinformation or negative portrayal of a set of people”. Instead, Ahmed argued, we must ensure “healthy public reasoning” where people could “draw their own meanings” from a work of art. Despite being in agreement with Ahmed, and with all those left-liberals who are against the banning of the film, I would like to raise some questions around it. 

There is a fundamental liberal presupposition made by Ahmed in his discomfort against the act of banning. He believes a healthy public debate can take place around the film, where the meaning of art will be critically discussed and expanded, is possible. In fact, his whole argument rests on the possibility of a liberal-minded debate on the issue. But is it really possible under the current political climate? Ahmed connects three different issues in his argument: 1) there is a film which, according to him, spreads misinformation, in other words, a propaganda film, 2) desirable exchanges based on public reason can take place around the film, and 3) the meaning of art can be enhanced by such efforts. 

A poster for ‘The Kerala Story’.

For Ahmed’s argument to bear fruit, the debates based on public reason must include the people behind the film and those who endorse it. There is clearly no point in people who agree that the film spreads misinformation debating the issue amongst themselves. If the filmmakers and the film’s supporters don’t agree to join an objective and critical debate on it, the idea falls flat. 

The point is, there is a political issue that the liberal argument does not address. 

The film is clearly political. It has a take on what it sees as a social, and even national issue. Any debate over it will also be necessarily political. It can’t be about the craft of filmmaking. If the filmmakers refuse to accept the accusation that it is a propaganda film based on misinformation, the debate will be reduced to two sides accusing each other’s political motives. Such a debate won’t fulfil the liberal demand of public reasoning. The debate is doomed to failure. 

The meaningfulness of public reasoning falls flat if both sides do not adhere to the principles of the debate. Without it, the meaning of art won’t be elevated. The assumption that a debate based on public reason is possible does not take into account the possibility of this failure. 

There is an obvious constraint in carrying out a public debate on the issue because there can’t be a common ground between two polarised groups. The constraint, in other words, is deeply political. Imagine if the ground of the debate is reduced to the fact that the argument you make determines if you are a nationalist or not. In that case, the idea of public reasoning and art has to fall within this framework in order to gather meaning. It is a coercion of reason and the meaning of art. Will it serve the cause of public reason and the meaning of art? 

It is true that in a liberal, secular, democratic country, nothing should be banned. Works of art and literature must be allowed to question, critique, and lampoon all forms and figures of power. Salman Rushdie’s famous definition of freedom of expression in his essay, ‘In Good Faith’ (1990) goes: “Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” 

Rushdie’s militantly liberal definition however does not take something important into account. The United Nations secretary-general, António Guterres shared an important concern in a statement in May 2019: “Public discourse is being weaponised for political gain with incendiary rhetoric that stigmatises and dehumanises minorities, migrants, refugees, women and any so-called ‘other’.”

This clearly limits freedom of expression. It sets an ethical – and political – limit on free expression that holds that no value is greater than the dignity of vulnerable people. Not all films, or works of art and literature branded as propaganda, may raise an ethical problem of this nature and magnitude. 

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In a subsequent article, Hilal Ahmed acknowledged that the film’s portrayal of Muslims is “deeply problematic” and  it might have “an adverse impact on communal harmony.” But the film must be screened, he insisted, and the state must maintain law and order. This argument shifts the question about the ethical limits of free expression to the juridical responsibility of the state. To appeal to the state to ensure public peace so that free expression can be allowed to exist is to argue that statist instrumentality can provide an acceptable justification for an ethical breach in the definition of art. What comes before the question of ‘law and order’ is the question of the ethical (and social) law that precedes the question of order. Of what order serves in the name of the law. Of what does it serve of art.  

To be against all forms of banning in the name of democratic values is a liberal virtue. The value is desirable. Except that, it falls short on occasions like the one under discussion. The political and the substantively ethical fact of the crisis is left aside, if one doesn’t also admit that such a virtue is often without hope. 

Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is an author. His latest book is Nehru and the Spirit of India.