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Reasonable restrictions

  • Published at 12:03 am November 1st, 2016
  • Last updated at 07:35 am November 1st, 2016
Reasonable restrictions

How would you react to a satirical post regarding an aspect of Islam life, such as a picture of a mosque on which a photo of the Hindu god Shiva is photoshopped? Unable to find a photo of the image online, I must resort to my imagination.

Would you be angry? Would you laugh it off? Would you understand satire? If this is not satire, if it was meant to cause offence, would you be the bigger “man” and let it go?

Would you chastise the Hindu community in return? Would you send death threats to the creator of the photo, a Hindu man? Would you merely be offended and make derogatory comments about an entire religion in the confines of your living room?

Or would you collect amongst your brethren, make weapons out of materials you could find around your area, and charge against every Hindu temple you can find and break them down?

You talking to me?

If a debate must be had, it must be had under the belief that firstly, all claims must be subjected to reason and secondly, that being reasonable is, in fact, a desired trait.

If either of these is something one disagrees with, then each conversation, each debate, must regress into personal experiences and anecdotal claims.

With that in mind, it is only human to suffer from subjective reasoning; we are conditioned to function to serve our own personal interests. When something external disagrees with our claims on life, or seeks to destroy what we hold dear, it is natural, if not an evolutionary imperative, to try and defend our position in that situation. Or avoid extinction in some form.

That would be acceptable in a world that hasn’t spent thousands of years progressing and moving “ahead” in some way. We live in a world where the utter destruction of human beings is, at the very least, frowned upon by the majority.

If, for example, you hold a belief that goes against the empirical evidence that has been presented to you, it is acceptable, and for some, even admirable, for you to change your mind and say: “You got me. You were right. And I was wrong.”

Or, at the very least, say: “This bears further thinking. This isn’t as black and white as I thought it would be.”

Digital Act 2016

The government’s Digital Act 2016, under the guise of cyber-security, seeks to cement the oppression that open debate and conversation already face in this country.

The fact that the offending photo was posted on Facebook is important. The perpetrator has since been arrested for posting such an inflammatory photo of what the government and the majority community deems to be offensive.

But surely, the notion of vengeance in such a manner is far worse? Is there any excuse? How many would say that they deserved it? Or that this kind of reaction is understandable?

It is absolutely paramount that, if we believe logic and reasoning are crucial to progress, to people changing their minds, to broadening their thinking, to be open to dissenting and differing points of view, that acts such as these aren’t allowed to see the light of day.

There are only so many times, and in so many words, that one can wax poetic about the crisis that the very notion of freedom of speech faces -- and this is not specific to this country either. Bangladesh already has laws in place which cater to offences mentioned in the act, and these offences are dealt with in different ways in various other nations as well.

This is nothing unusual. Constitutions and laws have wreaked havoc on the very notion of freedom, whether it be in the form of expression or otherwise, through contradictions. In a democracy, as Bangladesh often claims to be, under its constitution, the country already “privileges” its citizens with the right to freedom of speech, “subject to any reasonable restrictions,” of course.

But what exactly are these reasonable restrictions? What can we constitute to be reasonable when the discussion has veered off science and into moral philosophy?

Crystal clear

If the laws of reasonability fall apart here, the law itself must be vague enough to leave the judgement of each offence up to whoever is responsible.

In this case, director of the newly created Digital Security Agency (which will come about as a result of the Act) will serve as the sole arbiter of justice. He or she will have the authority to deal punitive damages to potential offenders.

This is the most problematic aspect of the Act.

It presupposes a Utopia in which judges, of any kind, despite the power with which they are blessed, will be so pure of heart that they would dole out justice in the fairest of terms.

Much like the Patriot Act, it doesn’t take into consideration (or does it, in fact, hope for it?) that people are susceptible to corruption, and that governmental officers even more so, especially in Bangladesh.

It assumes that we practice the most fair and balanced of governance, and that the ambiguity of the laws will not be used to harass, to push agendas, to coerce, to take advantage, to burn our rights to the ground whenever the government sees fit.

This is a dangerous line to walk.

When these offences are spread out to include what is said on social media platforms (for example, of a mosque juxtaposed against a Hindu god), platforms on which it doesn’t take much to say something, anything, the potential for abuse is ripe, and unless we are willing to leave our lives in the hands of those who govern us with absolute trust, let’s hold our horses.

When the prerequisite for reason is as relative as it is when it comes to drawing the line on free expression, the discussion we are meant to be having finds no concrete point of settlement. With the changing of the guards, so too must what can be said, and what cannot.

Blurred lines

Again and again, we come back to the same thing. Where do we draw the line? Whether or not one is willing to accept it, morality is subjective -- and that, is a fact.

But more people need to understand this. The government needs to understand that, even though society needs a fixed set of rules to function and keep the wheels turning, it cannot with the scope for change completely shut down. The only way we can allow this change to take place is through the continuous evaluation and re-evaluation of the status quo, by constantly questioning what we already think we know.

Maybe the photo was just offensive for being offensive’s sake. Or maybe it was ingenious socio-political commentary on the state of religion in this country. You can choose to see it however you want to. But surely, the notion of vengeance in such a manner is far worse? Is there any excuse? How many would say that they deserved it? Or that this kind of reaction is understandable?

It’s understandable but we must, we absolutely must, evolve to allow for different viewpoints to come through, no matter how offensive. We must be better than violence, we must be better than demolishing an entire religion’s holy places at the so-called provocation of a single social media post. In this case, at least, let the lines not be so blurry.

SN Rasul is a Sub-Editor at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.

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