In our society, after immediately having a good laugh at a vulgar misogynistic joke or a quick quip on colour-off jokes, social actors resort to making contrite remarks. Sometimes they say “Uff Taubah!” as an expression of penitence. These remarks are starkly superficial, for the jokes are repeated in gatherings and snickered at by the majority of people.
We are myopic to not understand the long-term consequences of our free speech, yet ironically prudent enough to exonerate ourselves of the short-term negative effects of the underlying connotations. When some of us take offense, we are told to lighten up to lewd jokes in the name of a liberalist doctrine and free speech. Ironically, this very notion of offense is an integral part of liberalism that we are not yet aware of.
Freedom of speech has been advocated to be an inherent and intrinsic human right. Whether it is exercised or not is a person’s prerogative and contingent upon his/her cognizance of the relevant and applicable social codes and penalties as per the legal norms of his/her place of abode. Brusquely put, how much one opens one’s mouth to utter words of wisdom or otherwise, among other measures, including codes of morality and ethics, is contingent on the magnitude of freedom of speech/expression one affords, and has knowledge thereof.
Free speech as per its ideals is subject to constraints if the outcome of such speech ‘harms’ another person
With the increase in (social media) awareness of the values of ‘liberalism’ and ‘free speech’, the question remains: how much civility are we willing to forego when we type a tweet that is publicly viewed? Just because we possess the right to free speech, are we ‘compelled to’ exercise that right when the consequences of ‘offense/harm’ and dissonance in social cohesion are inevitable, and the risk of perpetuating stereotypes especially for vulnerable groups, plain as day?
As a Pakistani, I was exposed to the values of freedom of expression through popular discourse in the privileged intelligentsia of our society. Mostly, it implied “expressing anything, no matter how staggeringly offensive” taking refuge in the dictums of free speech. Overriding social values, using sarcasm aimed particularly at vulnerable groups was sanctioned as an unbounded Western liberal philosophy. However, later, as a student of political philosophy, I was made to learn otherwise.
The freedom of expression, I had known, crumbled like a Trojan horse, revealing its underlying principles of ‘harm’ and ‘offense’ as restrictive forces/actions for/against negative externalities. I understood that values were subjective, and without context stand alone, fragile and weak. Indeed, as per the liberalist ideal of freedom of speech, including satire, people were not expected to discard ‘comprehensive moral values’, especially pertaining to those who had been ‘wronged’ and were ‘vulnerable’.
When freedom to speak is unequivocally set at a parallel with freedom to harm or the freedom to offend, the dogma of the former falls short of itself, even by the standards it has set, for itself. The statement, almost tautological, is a veritable liberal credo. Free speech as per its ideals is subject to constraints if the outcome of such speech ‘harms’ another person. How harm is defined is contingent on an evaluation of cultural values and beliefs ‘that is sensitive to local values’. One of the most authoritative thinkers in liberalism, John Stuart Mill sets such a casus foederis: ‘The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.’
Research evidence suggests that ‘one function of sarcasm is to mute the emotional impact of both criticism and praise’. Therefore, sarcastic criticism is perceived as less negative than literal criticism. Sarcastic praise is perceived as less positive than literal praise. The idea of using sarcasm, even if based on good intentions to attenuate the problem of child molestation, becomes counterproductive, especially if the satire is in written form, and the aim is to condemn the heinous crime.
Subsequently, by using satire, we risk making the topic of child molestation more palatable, inappropriately so in a society where ‘Bacha Baazi’ is considered to be a cultural practice and its victims endure depression, self-blame and low self-esteem because they are hushed up, out of fear of being named and shamed.
By subjecting the traumatic experience of abuse to crude jokes, satire can exacerbate the very problem of child abuse in Pakistan, namely trivialization and tabooing. Psychological research suggests that satirical rhetoric and content normalizes abuse as opposed to destroying the stigma that comes with it. It can also have the effect of fostering discrimination against the targeted groups. Therefore, if discourse or content surrounding victims of sexual abuse, is vilifactory and propagates abiding social misconceptions, it must be circumvented.
Substantive evidence concludes that sarcasm and disparaging humour have the potential to reinforce ‘social hierarchy and stereotypes’ pertaining to the very individuals they target by virtue of accustoming social actors to existing norms, especially against historically oppressed segments of society, in our case victims of sexual abuse.
A society where “Bachi/Bacha fit hai” (literally meaning, ‘the child is attractive’; figuratively meaning that the girl/boy, woman/man has physical attributes which are appealing to the speaker) is taken to be a “harmless coquettish one-liner”, further sarcasm pertaining to sexual abuse only helps perpetuate malicious and mischievous stereotypes, signaling that it is “okay” to do so. Just as two wrongs do not make a right, mocking an issue which is already travestied, cannot serve as restitution.
Despite being one of the harbingers of liberalism, the US has a censorship mechanism. Known popularly as the Miller Test, freedom of expression is not guaranteed any protection even as per the First Amendment to the United States Constitution if the ‘expression/speech meets the following three conditions, in which case the expression/speech is termed obscene and can be curtailed:
‘Whether “the average person, applying contemporary community standards”, would find that the work appeals to the prurient interest; Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions specifically defined by applicable state law;
Whether the work, (sic) lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.’
Exempli gratia, the subject of child pornography under the US laws, is intolerable, affording itself no protectionism under freedom of expression. So, no matter how far along the political right we move we see that the notions of civility and decency pertaining to child molestation remain constant, at least normatively.
Irrational and provocative statements/expressions aimed to become viral and increase one’s online popularity (measured directly by the number of followers on Twitter, Instagram, etc.) in the garb of satire for contentious issues such as child molestation and rape, are detrimental to the cause of any social structure. The consequences of such views are far-reaching, especially within the realm of a society where victims of sexual abuse are discriminately ostracized in the name of honour. This is where parents are blackmailed with graphic recordings of their children being raped, venting out my vexation (even if against the crime) at the cost of hurting the sentiments of the affectees by using obscene and ill-drafted social messages is deeply offensive, to say the least. It becomes further troublesome to have such vitriolic views propagated and defended under the broader premise of free speech and satire in an attempt to destroy the rape culture.
As a country where 12 million children constitute the labour market section, with 11 cases of child abuse reported every day and the recent horrific incidents of barbaric molestations and rape coming into limelight, we do not need a liberal or a conservative society when it comes to condemning the abominable act of child molestation; we only need a civilised one. Instilling ideas of subjective perspective on rape as well passing value judgments on the ethnicity of those committing the crime, (in a hypothetical situation, even if meant as satire) is simply offensive.
The writer has touched a very pertinent issue of trivializing heinous acts with jokes and satire; thereby as a society approving these acts, or atleast encouraging them. I salute the writer for her astute and well founded arguments and observations. I cannot agree more with the writer that our response, as a society, to horriffic crimes such as child abuse, rape and torture, should be atleast “civilized”. It is high time that we must address such vital social issues and grow as a nation, a civilized one.
an Eye opener…. our society’s basic problem… nicely addressed