I like to think that I am an advocate of free speech. I am therefore appalled when I hear reports of the extreme efforts to which individuals, organisations, or even governments will go to suppress the ideas expressed by others. However, I also believe that there are issues of respect at stake here, and whilst I have no qualms about the use of biting satire, or scathing written or verbal attacks mounted against oppressive regimes or injustice, I believe that this is more effective when conducted in a thoughtful and polite manner.
The influence upon this current line of thinking comes from news today that a second Bangladeshi blogger, Washiqur Rahman, who wrote under the pseudonym Kutshit Hasher Chhana (Ugly Duckling), has been murdered for apparently expressing views that were found offensive by an extreme minority. This is the second reported murder of an independent writer in Bangladesh in recent weeks, Bangladeshi-American blogger Avijit Roy having been killed in similar circumstances.
Such crimes against individuals who are committed to free speech and the right to express their views to a wider public are clearly appalling, and must be condemned in the strongest terms. I am, of course aware that critical writers and satirists from Jonathan Swift, through Nikolai Gogol and Anthony Burgess to Flann O’Brien have often caused offense to some whilst entertaining and educating others. Fortunately, all of these have now been acknowledged as fine writers who did a service to their communities by challenging cant and hypocrisy in a way that was accessible to a broad readership.
I am not suggesting that either Washiqur Rahman or Avijit Roy were writers who will be held in the same esteem as Swift or Gogol, though I am probably not best placed to make this judgement, but the principle of being able to express critical views and to make these available to a readership is exactly the same, regardless of literary ability.
In reading the reports related to these dreadful and ultimately pointless crimes, I was struck by an expression used in a couple of them to describe the victims. The term “progressive free thinker” has emerged as a descriptor attached to both of these bloggers by several journalist. When I thought about this term I found I had little difficulty with the notion of being a free thinker. It seems to me that both of these writers held a belief that the right to express thoughts on paper (or over the internet) should be sacrosanct; a sentiment with which I am generally in accord. There are, of course laws to protect individuals from material that may be seen as libellous, and if writers are prepared to put their views into the public domain they should take the time to ensure that their comments are justified, and that they have the evidence to support any assertions made. It is also my personal belief that efforts should be made to moderate language and to be respectful. The perpetrators of injustice are never comfortable when attacked by writers who use language that is balanced and arguments that are based upon evidence and logic.
Having little difficulty with the term “free thinker”, I do find myself wondering more about the use of the word “progressive.” Making progress implies that there is an end goal in mind, and that it is possible to measure the distance travelled towards attaining this goal. The difficulty comes when the goal is unclear, or when individuals or groups are working towards vastly differing goals, or wish to impose their own goal upon others. I suspect that the thugs who murdered Washiqur Rahman and Avijit Roy have their own view of the “progress” that they would wish society to make, and that it differs radically from that which the murdered writers would have advocated. The term “progressive” is one of those that has been apprehended by individuals and organisations throughout history to imply that they have the interests of the majority in mind. However, it remains a word that is seldom discussed and often used by journalists in a throw away manner.
What is clear is that the murder of any individual for holding views that challenge the sensibilities of others is a despicable and unjustified crime. If individuals or groups are truly committed to being “progressive,” they would better serve those who they claim to represent by engaging in open debate and listening to the opinions of others. This demands a more inclusive attitude than appears currently to be available or desirable to those who would wish to silence others. Such an approach may lead to greater understanding and ultimately to increased respect and tolerance – now that really would be progress! I suspect that those who murdered these two Bangladeshi bloggers are far more interested in halting progress than in seeing changes implemented to which they are opposed.