All hail ye, Free Speech! Or rather, that speech which I agree with/can mildly tolerate/which doesn’t hurt my sentiments. Much has been written this week on free speech and its importance in promoting dialogue, on the value of protecting such speech. And yet, while the world is focused on what has been happening on the confines of another (alas, much larger) campus, I draw your attention to events transpiring on ours.
Last Monday morning, those of us who trudged to class were greeted with an unexpected sight – over the weekend, the Gender Circle had put up posters on the walls and doorways of the Academic Block. A small event, by any standard. Posters are not uncommon on campus, and these ones were next to others by the PLPDG and the largely-ignored weekly features of the Cinema Club (full disclosure: the author is a card-carrying member of said Club). Most who walked past them spared them nary a glance. A few stopped to read them – they mostly contained messages that spoke out against the tendency to equate feminists with genocidal maniacs, or spoke out against the pretentiousness and self-congratulatory tone of certain self-proclaimed male feminists. They were – and may the Gender Circle forgive me for this – largely unexceptional.
What makes this worth writing about are the events that subsequently transpired. By tea break, two of the posters had been torn down. There seemed to be no particular reason for the same – whether this act was caused by a particular hatred of the message itself, the Gender Circle, or the entire feminist movement, remains unknown. What we do know is that over the course of the last few days, the Circle has repeatedly put up posters – the content of which now point out that the first batch was torn down – and that these posters have repeatedly been removed.
Clearly, this is the handiwork of a member of the student body, who prefers to veil his/her identity for reasons unknown (although I’m going to go ahead and assume that some degree of cowardice is involved). The individual in question went on to scrawl “Now thrice” on the wall where the posters had been put up, to refer to the fact that this was the third time that they had been torn down.
This event could not have been more beautifully timed. With all that is happening outside the four walls of this campus – with the debate surrounding free speech and its meaning raging across India – we are given an opportunity to examine the application of the same to our own campus. The scale of the event is remarkably different, of course, but the essential foundation is the same: what is the form in which campus discussion should take place?
For that, indeed, is what those posters were supposed to do – provoke discussion on campus. To make people think. What happens when these posters are removed? It does more than simply inconvenience the persons who went to the trouble of putting them up – it leads to a situation where one person is essentially shutting down all avenues for discussion. One person determines that this topic isn’t even worth talking about, or worth expressing. Worse, one person chooses when others get to express themselves.
Disagree with the posters? Feel free to ignore them. However, tearing them apart amounts to curbing someone else’s right to free speech. This campus has had quite a few moments to be proud of – from the Pads Against Sexism campaign, to the efforts to open the Back Gate and curb sexual harassment, to the Insaaf posters. It wasn’t as though the decisions were uncontroversial – but dissent, if any, was expressed in a healthier manner. None of that could have been achieved by silencing those who chose to speak out. By removing the posters, we reach a situation where a single person determines that they are the arbitrator of whether someone else gets to express an opinion or not. Their decision and choice in this regard essentially becomes more important than another’s right to speak freely; they determine that they can silence that which they deem objectionable. How, then, are we any different from all the other universities and establishments that we so fiercely criticize? When our fellow students are denied the space to start a discussion, how does that differentiate us from the intolerance that we see writ large outside these four walls?
This isn’t the first time that the Gender Circle’s posters have been torn down, and it won’t be the last. The Circle has faced persistent harassment since its inception – whether it’s defacing the posters or tearing them down altogether. Let this not become the new normal. Let us continue to promote healthy modes of communication over passive-aggressive actions. Lest we become what we fear.