Thoughts on economics and liberty

Tag: Freedom of Expression

Duchess Kate’s photos, painting nude Hindu goddesses, and smearing Mohammed. A solution to all these issues.

Our body is PURELY our own, and so no one can use it for private gain without our permission. That is a first principle of liberty.

In most cases we don't mind if our photo is published in a newspaper or we come on a TV show. Most people will go to extraordinary lengths to make themselves "presentable" for such "photo opportunities".

When we voluntarily present ourselves for public inspection in such a manner, it is perfectly fine for our photographs to be published.

Thus, there is no humiliation involved when Duchess Kate voluntarily presents herself, fully prepared and dressed, in a public forum. She is delighted to be present in such a forum. The audience is delighted to see her happy. The photographers have a legitimate role in publishing these photos.

Even when someone walks down a street (a public place) it is reasonably legitimate to take a photo of a person as part of the overall scenery. Tourists do that all the time. I must show up as a random figure walking by, in the background of tens of tourist photos near the Victorian Parliament and fountain near my workplace.

But when someone is NOT prepared for public inspection, or not VOLUNTARILY ready to meet or greet someone, then our liberty to control access to our body comes into place – and it is ABSOLUTE.

A mere gesture asking people to leave us alone should be enough. Or a signboard in a nudist beach.

To the extent that paparazzi FORCE their photographic lens on someone who is NOT prepared for PUBLIC inspection, and has NOT consented, there is clearly a breach of liberty involved.

Paparazzi have no freedom to take photos of an unsuspecting, unprepared celebrity for their PERSONAL GAIN. Even for viewing privately.

They are accountable for their breach of the celebrity's liberty to use her body as she pleases.

Court remedy for painting nude Hindu goddesses/ smearing Mohammed

It must be absolutely maddening to some Muslims to see the British royalty undertaking such a massive defensive exercise for photos of Duchess Kate, but that google blatantly ignores their concerns and has retained that offensive movie on Youtube. Google is effectively telling the Muslims of the world: "We believe there is freedom of expression to libel your Prophet". But the same google could well remove the unwanted pictures of Duchess Kate if the court says so.

Similarly, some Hindus must be really offended that M.F. Hussain is allowed to get away by painting nude goddesses, and they are told he has "freedom of expression".

The problem from the court's perspective, of course, is the non-existence of the aggrieved party. Mohammed is dead and can't defend himself. And Hindu goddesses can't do that either.

This means that those who believe in Mohammed or the Hindu goddess can do nothing about this. This frustrates them to no end. It irritates, bothers, and infuriates them.

Basically the world is saying this: While you are alive, the slightest distortion/ invasion of your liberty by an offender can lead to a jail term for the offender. But after you are dead (e.g. in the case of Mohammed), your entire life story is up for grabs. It becomes perfectly legitimate after your death to smear you, distort your life story. And to put it up on google for millions of people to see. Not just mockery, but fraudulent distortion is also TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE.

I think there is a fundamental flaw in this argument.

Duchess Kate was humiliated by these photos. But many Muslims were DEEPLY offended by the movie under question. If Duchess Kate can't "take it and lump it", or "not watch these photos", etc., then why should Muslims "take it and lump it" or "not watch the Youtube video"?

The world will need to resolve this issue lest it be seen as a case of double standards. And there must be a consistent law on this matter.

I'm not a fan of psychological harm, but I believe that every harm can be quantified, and therefore compensated – even for one cent.

I'm increasingly inclined to re-affirm the remedy which I had proposed earlier. In summary, the remedy is the following:

a) All such matters should be dealt with purely as CIVIL matters. In the case of Duchess Kate's photos, the photographer/editor was purely driven by greed: the desire to make money out of her body. Duchess Kate is entitled to take the photographer/ publisher to the cleaners. But this should NOT be made into a criminal matter. Like most common offences for financial gain, damages are sufficient penalty.  Indeed, one could argue that photographers make their living out of photos, so like an artist who has some license, photographers must not be treated as  criminals for such actions.

b) Further, ANYONE who is offended deeply and can show cause, should be able to sue for damages. In the case of the offensive Mohammed video, NO commercial gain was intended. Hence the damages can only be for personal discomfort caused. If sufficient people combine to sue the offending party, the sum total of damages in such "class action" suit can be substantial.

I disagree with Shashi Tharoor about any inevitability of Muslim violence

At the talk yesterday at Australia-India Institute, Shashi Tharoor said that we have to get used to the idea that some idiot will offend the Prophet, and some idiotic Muslims will use it as pretext for violence.

I disagree because this is NOT a solution. It merely rejects the psychological pain experienced by a LIVING person. No matter how small the potential compensation, such pain should be allowed recourse through courts.

Duchess Kate's sense of humiliation is real. She is entitled to compensation for that humiliation.

Similarly, outrage and alarm experienced by (some) real, living Muslims at the DELIBERATELY offensive treatment of their Prophet is real. We can't just say to them: Mohammed is dead, so suck up and live with this sense of betrayal/ humiliation/ pain.

I believe that if the law were to allow class action suits for demonstrable harm experienced through an offence, then extremist Muslims who feel offended will stop violence, and instead, will combine and sue for damages. Courts can determine appropriate damages, and the matter will resolve itself. That will be the only civilised way out of this problem – which is not going to go away anytime soon.

Once such option exists, editors (and publishers like google) will become more conscious of any real harm they may cause. This approach, which is consistent with first principles of liberty, will bring falsehoolds and slander to a halt. Academic discussions/ oppositional reasoned views, etc. will flourish. The benefits of freedom of expression will remain, while the harm caused by malafide expression will be curbed.

Shashi's idea that we should get used to endless violence is not a sensible way to deal with this issue. It is also inconsistent with the treatment of some kinds of psychological harm. We must firmly defend freedom of expression, but allow compensation where harm is demonstrated.

Note that I'm not talking about perceived psychological harm, but demonstrable psychological harm.

Note that I'm NOT talking about any active role for government. No bans. No reduction in freedom of expression. But let courts consider and award damages.

Although each individual Muslim's compensation will likely be very small (e.g. cost of loss of sleep for one night?), the sum total of damages awarded against google could be substantial

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Why there must be no restriction on naming violent people

We may, at times, think that mass murderers should not be named by the press. Hiding their names would deny them the oxygen which drives their criminal urges. Similarly, the identity and religion of a religious terrorist should be kept out of the public eye.

But I entirely disagree with such an approach.

There is NO CASE for any restriction on the untrammeled truth. We want the UNFILTERED TRUTH. Nothing less.

Andrew Sullivan made this point clear in an article today:

The only thing worse than a disrespectable press is a respectable one. Respectability means a concern for the established order over the truth. In the legitimate bid to root out abuse we need to ensure we don't make journalism something great and good that people aspire to. The very disreputable nature of our profession is what keeps freedom alive. Some pillars of liberal democracy must have foundations in the dirt.

Well said. The effeminate elite may well hide from the truth, but we, the commoners, are capable of facing reality.

Let's say No to censorship, even for so-called 'politically correct' reasons.

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The muzzling of liberty in Australia

I mentioned a few days ago that among the countries today, I'd rate Australia as relatively more (if not the most) free. I don't comment much on Australian policies, but you are perhaps aware of my concern with the recent muzzling of free speech.

Janet Albrechtsen has raised some good points today in The Australian in this context. I'm extracting a few of them, below:

EXTRACTS
There ought to be outrage that feeling insulted, offended, humiliated or intimidated can censor free speech. Instead of pointing out that these hopelessly subjective tests have no rightful place in the law, Marr opted for cute distinctions between feeling offended or insulted and feeling humiliated or intimidated.
 
Teasingly, he wrote last week that the anti-vilification provisions of the RDA were drafted too broadly: "Vigorous public discussion in a free society is impossible without causing insult and offence." He's right. But then he said speech that made someone feel humiliated or intimidated should be censored. "There are limits," he concluded.
 
Yes, there are limits to free speech. If errors of fact are made, that is a legitimate complaint and corrections should be duly published. If defamation has occurred, that too is a valid claim and redress is available. But none of that justifies using highly subjective laws as political weapons to shut down views you detest. And quibbling over which feelings the law ought to cover is not a genuine defence of free speech. Hurt feelings ought to have no role in censoring free speech. 
 
Laws often involve ambiguous language and require subjective reasoning from judges. But the more ambiguous and subjective we make the laws, the more we are subjected to the rule of judges, not law.
 
There ought to be outrage that a judge decided to play editor and ruled against Bolt for not being sufficiently polite. Judge Mordecai Bromberg entered Big Brother territory when he picked apart Bolt's articles on the basis that his language was "often strong and emphatic' that there is "a liberal use of mockery and sarcasm" and a "derisive tone".
 
Sure, debate is sometimes heated. But, then again, the right to free speech is not some nanny-state edict that grants a right to express only genteel speech.
 
Most people on the conservative side of politics may believe those on the Left are wrong on the important issues but fully support their right to express their views. The attitude is "go ahead, do your best at explaining your position and just watch us counter it with better arguments".
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Ganesh vs. the Third Reich #10 – The best new work at the Melbourne Festival

I seem to have wasted my time in dissecting the arguments of those Indians in Australia who wanted to impose a ban on this play.

The administrators of the Facebook group on this subject created by these fanatic Indian Australians booted me out from the group, but have also possibly shut it down (I can't find the group on Facebook, nor through google). So much for their alleged commitment to free speech. What a shame! 

I'm writing this merely to note that this play has now won The Age Critics Award for best new work. Clearly it must have had some artistic merit.

The fact that this play won a significant award makes it even more important that ABSOLUTE freedom be allowed in matters of speech/expression. Let people judge whether the expression is good or bad. Let's not pre-judge and try to stop any expression.

Should any fanatic Australian Indian happen to read this, please consider this simple truism: human civilisation depends ENTIRELY on allowing the free expression of the human mind. 

Let there be liberty of thought and expression. As the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high 
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments 
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way 
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee 
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

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