Daily Archives: January 15, 2015

Absolute free speech in a relative universe

Not being a possessor of opinions that matter and a perch that is of consequence I spend all of my time way under the radar. One writes a lot but all of what one writes almost instantly becomes submerged in the digital hubbub. That is not my choice but that is the way it is. Unless you have done something of relevance and consequence or said something which is beyond the pale controversial, it is impossible to get noticed.

This somewhat strange opening paragraph has a purpose. The purpose is to illustrate that free speech comes into the play, into the public discourse, almost always in its breach or abuse or contravention. Of course, there are many examples of free expression, as in the form of a book or a painting or a performed piece of work, which have led to severe consequences for those practicing it. By and large though, it is only when free expression runs seriously counter to a set of widely-held cultural and religious beliefs that things become viciously intolerant and murderously critical.

It is in this context that I was reading comments by Salman Rushdie who says the right of free speech is absolute because otherwise it is not free. I come to the idea of the right of absolute free speech from the standpoint of a learner of physics. To the extent that we do not live in an absolute universe—and I mean the universe in the sense of the one actually governed by the laws of physics no matter how bizarre and not in a philosophical sense—it is an unscientific assertion to make. Absolute does not preclude reaction in any part of the massive and quantum universe. In fact, the universe as we know and observe it is necessarily continually seeking to stay in equilibrium which in turn means it has to balance all the complex forces and processes that are always going on. It is not an absolute system.

That being the case why would the right of absolute free speech be devoid of consequence? One may debate the kind of consequence that a civilized society should allow but it is impossible to separate the right of absolute free speech from its consequence. The moment it has consequence, like all things in the universe do, it is no longer free. It is relative. There is relative free speech. Only those dunderheads who do not understand physics and what relativity means in that context would interpret this to mean that I am for free speech with reasonable restrictions. I am not even remotely saying it. I am saying absolute free speech is purely unachievable within a universe that is so demonstrably relative.

Rushdie has been quoted as saying, "And so artists who go to that edge and push outwards often find very powerful forces pushing back. They find the forces of silence opposing the forces of speech. The forces of censorship against the forces of utterance. At that boundary is that push-and-pull between more and less. And that push and pull can be very dangerous to the artist. And many artists have suffered terribly for that."

That he talks in terms of an edge means there is an edge beyond which we do not know what might happen. A genuinely absolute free speech would not have that edge. There is an edge simply because in the universe everything has an edge beyond which there is consequence. In fact, I would argue that that edge is not that far because it is right within us. We are the edge. The universe is such a mind-numbingly bizarre soup of forces at the massive and quantum levels that there is no predicting what might happen at any given moment but for the constant balancing of those forces to retain a measure of equilibrium.

All this debate reminds me of my own Urdu verse that says:

खुश्क पत्तों के जंगल मे

दबे पाओं चलते हो

यह क्या करते हो?

Khushk patton ke jungle mein

Dabey paon chalte ho

Yeh kya karte ho?

(You walk tiptoed

In a forest full of dry leaves,

What’s the point?)

Wow! I can spin some serious shit. This is called saying a lot without really  saying anything. It all sounds rather important and full of sense but it is anything but. Hence my original point about flying under the radar all the time and therefore not getting counted.