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Era Of Torn Down Statues And The Fragility Of Freedom Of Speech

Globally, there has been quite a bit of buzz around pulling down of statues of slave traders, owners, racists and generally unpleasant people of (subaltern) history. Equally, within Pakistan, there have been verbal bloodbaths around the invitation of a colonial apologist and neo-conservative historian to a literary event. Battle lines were drawn, and high rhetoric was deployed on either side of the discursive trenches. The fierce verbal bayonet charges for high ground made the Indo-China Galwan valley engagement in Laddakh look like a school yard brawl.

Friendships were frayed, high priests were defrocked and megabytes of word processing painted the social media battle fields black. When liberals start shooting, they get in a circle. And get in a circle they did, in Pakistan and globally.

But mostly, it seemed like the pugilists were shadow boxing. They were simply on different planes of existence where the punches thrown mostly displaced a lot of air and cyber space, but not much beyond.

Relatively recently, the crème de la crème of the global liberal intelligentsia also signed a letter in the Harper’s Magazine, calling for respect of free speech in the struggle against racism, sexism, injustice and neo-colonialism. More locally, yet others wondered if we will have to abandon railways, or irrigation and revert to elephant transport instead of PIA in a properly decolonised world. Following and interacting with these debates across national and international scale, I have been struck by the lack of engagement with foundational concepts of positive versus negative freedoms.

Positive freedoms are the ones that one engages in of one’s own free will, or by virtue of physical/emotional necessity, e.g., eat, sleep, laugh, cry, fall in love, walk, sit, stand, run as well as basic bodily functions (urination, defecation etc). Contemporaneously better-known negative freedoms, on the other hand, are from external restraints, like freedom of speech, association, religion, dissent and so on.

While the entire edifice of liberalism has been built upon a concern with the protection of (individuals’) negative freedoms, radical politics have always been about positive freedoms, as perhaps a pre-requisite for even starting the conversation on negative freedoms.

Positive freedoms have to be negotiated collectively and politically. Only a collectivity can be a conduit for exercise of freewill. To sleep, eat, stand, cry, laugh, you don’t just have to do it sometime, but also have to do it somewhere. As a geographer, I am much more concerned about the ‘where’ of the exercise of positive freedoms. Can one eat and have shelter at one’s native place, or does one have to leave house and home to go to Dubai to get it? Can a woman laugh on her street, or does she have to muffle it in the inner recesses of her house? How spaces are created, opened and constricted is a social process? Homeless people in the West do not even have the positive freedom of sleeping on the road side, or urinating in a public toilet (it costs 20p in the UK to use one).

Such lack of positive freedoms emanating from histories of colonialism, patriarchy, racism, and capitalism, have directly spawned the texture of spaces and places that constrain positive freedoms by gender, class, ethnicity and that most toxic of fictions – race.

Histories are social and they are received and experienced socially. Hence, their consequences and struggle against those, are social undertakings as well. Negative freedoms, on the other hand, are a specific outcome of a European historical experience of the emergence of capitalism, scientific revolution and modernity and its subsequent diffusion through colonialism. “Modernity is a [European] regional discursive formation”, as two prominent Marxist geographers Richard Peet and Michael Watts argue. Liberalism has always privileged individual freedoms, against religious or political tyranny. It gave us such concepts as separation of church and state, liberal democracy, secularism and so on. Today, it is hardly surprising that the liberal elites in the North and South are so invested in protecting the negative freedoms with polite and mostly inconsequential nods to positive freedoms, which will somehow follow from victory in more urgent battles for freedom of speech, religion and so on.

It is not an either/or question when it comes to positive or negative freedoms, but about the structure of politics. The West may be hegemonic, but it is still far from erasing the diversity of human experience and imagination. Everyone is not, cannot, and must not be steam rolled under some relentless march of historical necessity or development. In fact, most emancipatory struggles are by the weak to collectively chart a future path of their choosing under the circumstances of their own choosing. Something that the liberals are very pleased to verbally concede, but cannot substantively empathise with, given their foundational structure of thinking and feeling. In such moments, concepts like freedom of speech or secularism, to take two, become ends in themselves – the final destinations of politics. To the radicals, they are not even the beginning.

Freedom of speech and secularism are historical fictions. They are useful fictions. I like those fictions, personally. I think these fictions should be told widely and retold in the world we live in. But we must not lie to ourselves that they are the end of politics.

Everyone may have freedom of speech, but the ability to exercise that freedom of speech is constrained by gender, class and race, which allows mostly upper class [white] men to have lot more it than women, blacks and browns. And then to piously pretend that without addressing racism, sexism, misogyny and class privilege one can have freedom of speech is to practically enable denial of it to most.

Secularism, invented by the French is another fiction that we love in an Islamic republic. To pretend that the entire European civilization and its creations of penal codes, science, culture and art can somehow be abstracted from two millenia of Christianity is simply to engage in intellectual naivete of the most pathetic kind.

So, should statues be torn down? I think ugly ones certainly should be — they are hideous. But, even the non-ugly ones are a celebration, often of an ugly history. An ugly history that occludes the alternate subaltern history of slavery and oppression, but equally also of women’s, non-whites’, and the marginalised’ accomplishments and richness of existence. They are like those ugly walls that keep people from the rich gated communities see the reality of the lives of the poor. The poor who make their lifestyles possible. The statues are like walls in a historical sense. They give reassurance that all is well, when it is not.

And should apologists of colonialism, or imperial wars, or flat earthers be given forums? Sure, if you think that they have something worthwhile to say. Providing a forum is an acknowledgment of the invitee’s contribution, and gravitas, even if you don’t agree with the message. Not providing a forum is not the same as denying freedom of speech. If your devotion to advancement of knowledge and free speech calls for an invite — invite away. But then, don’t get hostile towards people who question your choice of panelists.


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Naya Daur