The case of Sam Bacile, the real or fictitious man who is supposed to have uploaded the offensive video on Prophet Mohammad which has left the Islamic world in a state of outrage, must provoke a debate on the escalating conflict between individual freedom and collective sensibilities worldwide.
Bacile’s act could be dismissed as a mad act from a religious hate-monger, an isolated action with no potential for wider damage. However, it is difficult to do so. Look at the reaction from the commentariat to the issue on websites, you realise Bacile is much more than an individual entity, he represents a mindset. There’s no unequivocal condemnation for his act and there are even clear hints of appreciation for it.
Many don’t consider the content on the video as despicable or unacceptable. They mostly justify it citing acts of intolerance from the Muslim groups and freedom of free speech. They are not in the majority but still in good numbers to comprise a school of thought. One cannot be sure whether this set of people is actually communal and anarchic in its thinking or it champions individual freedom with such ferocity because the act of Bacile is so blatantly full of malice towards one specific community. The anonymity of the virtual world does strange things to normal people. It unleashes the beast in them.
But the bigger question in the episode is freedom. If the online universe mirrors the real world, then freedom must be a property with a dangerous potential. It is about the unchaining of the inner beast in us. Uncivil, offensive, intrusive, dictatorial and destructive — that’s what most of us would be if left alone to exercise our freedom without any hindrance. We would cause deliberate hurt to enemies, perceived or real. We would spread and encourage acts of hate. Bacile was being exactly that. His online supporters are not loathe to approximating his behaviour.
The normal world puts a lot of restrictions on the natural proclivity of people to breaking loose.
That’s the reason societies, communities and collectivities draw up elaborate rules to keep the wild behaviour in check. Means of social control such as laws, education, social mores etc. ensure conformity of people to the collectively agreed upon ways of social and personal conduct.
They draw several laxman rekhas and lay out clear instructions regarding interpersonal, inter-community and inter-group relations. Any individual acts of violation of these is considered deviant behaviour. All of this ensure harmonious coexistence of several identities within one geographical and broader macro-cultural space.
The online world is virtually lawless today. But this is just the beginning. It would get more and more chaotic as more people access it and understand its empowering properties. We could be close to a reality where all that spreads online could spill over to real life too.
Those who incite violence online could assert their freedom by trampling upon the freedom of others but still we will have strong advocates for online freedom and right of people to express themselves. Exaggeration? Well, no. The case of Bacile shows we have crossed the threshold. With the online hate community getting wider things would go worse. However, the anarchic situation would necessitate calls for regulation, which eventually will be in place. There will be realisation that freedom reaches wider and deeper when there are reasonable controls over it.
Unfettered liberty is the invitation to disaster. It’s human tendency to exercise freedom at the cost of others. People at the level of individuals cannot draw their own laxman rekhas, since it would always be subjective. The wider society has to step in to ensure that. Bacile’s case and the recent exodus of people from the North-East from different cities of India suggest that the line between the real and online world is getting confused. It’s the right time for a wider debate on freedom of all kinds — online and offline.