Freedom to Walk Away

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On January 30, 2003, within a week of MTV airing the adult animated television series called Clone High in the United States, Indian lawmakers and activists protested the depiction of Mahatma Gandhi in the series, where “Gandhi acts in many episodes as the comic relief.” In response to the protests, MTV issued the following apology: “MTV wants to make it clear that ‘Clone High’ was created and intended for an American audience … The animated show parodies several historical figures from around the world, including the United States, where this form of comedy is common.”

Hardly an apology? Yes, and also infuriating in its patronizing language and for propagating extant stereotypes. The intent of the apology, it seemed to me, was to indicate and enlist a way of thinking, an interpretation: that eastern cultural sensitivities don’t translate across the skin color divide.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, I remembered this particular incident, not because of the extent to which it reinforced the east-west dichotomy, but that the show had a short run (one season) and was displaced from its prime time slot even before its first season ended because of “mediocre ratings.” So, as it turned out, comedy and parody didn’t necessarily equate, even in America.

On the face of it, public dialog about freedom of speech is rife with such discursive dichotomies. Many of the commentaries originating in India after the Charlie Hebdo attack addressed the boundary conditions of the freedom of speech algorithm—the curbs that must be in place and the judicious consideration of potentially hurtful opinions. Most NYT op-ed writers argued vehemently for the unfettered right to express.

I believe that in democratic societies (east or west) our freedoms rest on the supposition that opinions expressed in public will be tempered by sensitivity and empathy. And in most cases, that is true.

In the case of Charlie Hebdo, it is reasonable to assume that the magazine could not sustain readership because of its uncomfortable lack of good taste. Before the attack, Charlie Hebdo had a print run of 60,000 copies of which less than half found buyers. The banner on its homepage just prior to the attack, sadly and ironically, declared: “Charlie est en danger!”

So, it’s really not about eastern sensitivities or western liberalism. It is about how, as a global society, we know how to self-correct without resorting to violence. It’s about having the confidence to walk away from the bullies on our playground.

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