Freedom of expression and Values

Perumal Murugan

(English version of the speech delivered at Lohia Academy, Bhubaneswar on Feb 24, 2018)

In recent times, I have been thinking and talking about the issue of freedom of expression in the context of our traditional society. Our society has been constructed within strict caste divisions and Varna seclusions. I would like to share some of my thoughts on the freedom expression in a society so rigidly and conservatively bound by traditional/conservative values.

To be frank, I am not fully aware of the philosophy, studies and explanations about social values. Are customs and kahawats different from social values? A bit tough to answer. But customs and proverbs are certainly influenced by the social values. That much I am sure. If we are asked to follow the footsteps of our ancestors without criticis, there lies the centrality of social values.

It is difficult to define what is social value. Values are known to be transferred from the parents and elders to the next generation. This only explains how values have been protected; certainly does not define or codify what are values. Even though I am unable to define strictly the concept of value, I am able to grasp what is this value. On whichever matter you are forbidden to raise questions, they are values. Wherever there is a prohibition for questioning – there lies some part of the value.

As for me, it is very proper to divide the value as the one based on nature and the other one based on unnatural or artificial concepts.

Nature based values describe the relationship between human life and the ways of nature. There is a widespread belief that you should not insult time. Time here means the sun. Sun is the basis of all living beings. So, in all regions, worshipping sun as a god is a traditional value. The living beings can function only when the sun rises and gives light. In all the times, this value remains.

The sparrow comes and builds its nest in the roofing at the front of our house. House owners happily welcome it. They don’t chase it away. It brings in and throws sticks, leaves and garbage. They clean them happily. It lays eggs there. Young sparrows are created. Till the sparrow family leaves on its own, they are allowed to live there safely. How and why? There is a belief that if the sparrow comes and makes it nest, the family also will get a child. It is also believed that if the sparrow’s nest is disturbed, the family also will get disintegrated.

There is a belief if the crow makes noise near the house, guests may arrive. The wife separated from the husband requests the crow to come and make sound near her home. She expects at least the crow’s cry may bring her husband back. Crow is the best companion for humankind than any other bird. Not a day passes without noticing a crow. We don’t sleep without hearing crow’s noise. The food we offer to the crows is considered to be eaten by our ancestors.

Such values provide protection to the sparrow and establish relationship with crow. In some places, trees are worshipped as god. Not even a small branch of the tree will be cut. If a big tree falls, people congregate and cry as if someone from their family has died. Death of cattle is also mourned and relatives come to express condolence. The values around sparrow, crow, tree, cattle etc establish the bond between mankind and the nature.

Some values are based on the five elements namely land, water, air, fire and sky. There are many changes, destructions, new creations etc in such values. They don’t create much disturbance in human relationship. They are by and large accepted as the times are changing. But the values created for the humans to live in a society are entirely different. Even a small violation creates great tension/disturbance among the stack holders. Questions against the values are fiercely detested. Values are treated as more important than the human beings. There is no question of any question over values. When there is no space for questioning, there is little space for freedom of expression.

There are many values based on mother. There are hundreds of films made centering around the mother. They all treat the mother as goddess. Mother’s word is Almighty’s word. Aathichoodi in Tamil is a collection of social values. The first value listed in that booklet: ‘Mother and father are your first gods’. Values like “Don’t disobey mother’s words and there is no better mantra than father’s instructions” virtually come out from the concept of divine status for parents. A proverb in Tamil says ‘you may insult your mother; but not the water’. Though it explains the importance of water, the superiority of the mother’s dictates very much prevails.

We should never disobey the parents. They are our creators. Therefore, they have every right to guide us or dictate us. We cannot argue with them. Mother & father are our first gods etc are the listed values. I have a very simple question over this. The world of my grandparents was around ten miles; and that of my parents was about 20 miles. But being the first generation to get education, I have to travel hundreds of miles.

My mother was ignorant and afraid of the outer world. If the son travels to far off places, some untoward thing may happen to him; he may not return; without taking my permission, he may love and marry an outsider etc were her fears. She expects the son to cultivate their small piece of land and live before their eyesight. Mother is afraid of anything new. That may destroy their life. So be content to keep walking on the path known to us.

In my time, plenty of schools were created to impart education for all the oppressed people. The new generation from the century-old uneducated races got the opportunity to read and write. But the parents were least interested to educate their children. Their doubts: ‘’What is the use of education for the toilers and tillers; are they going to work as Collectors after education.’’ Above all, the lurking fear is that the educated ward may not obey their words.

If the value demands me to obey the words of such a mother, it is but natural for me to raise question on the said value. I did raise questions; a bit tougher questions. This also ended up in several disputes between me and my mother. She tried to keep me under her thumb by persistent abuses and intermittent cries. The plight of my mother at that time was really pitiable. My plight to face my mother and win her over was equally pathetic.

I used to save the pocket money and purchased books via postal services. My mother opposed it severely. Relatives and fellow villagers gave multiple warnings to my mother: “If he reads too much, the boy will be spoiled. And he may go mad also.” Another complaint: “He wants to avoid farm works. Hence he finds an escape route through books”. I was struggling a lot to purchase books clandestinely. To keep them away from my mother’s watch was equally a big challenge. Under these circumstances, if someone advises me not to disobey the mother’s dictates, what will I do? After several fights and cries, she gave in and allowed me to pursue my way very reluctantly with a heavy heart.

She knows nothing about my education, college or the town where I stayed to study. So she has to listen to what I am telling about them. Only a person who knows the thing can tell to another person who does not know. This is applicable in all the fields. But our value saviours insist that the mother and father are the primary gods and we have to obey whatever they say blindly. How is it? Now a day, the private schools in Tamil Nadu glorify the parents as gods. In the name of honouring the parents, the children are encouraged to wash their feet. In which age are we living? Is washing the feet of parents the way to show our respect to our parents?

Similarly there is a value: ‘Words of the elders are amrut-like.’ So the youngsters have to accept the words of the elders – whatever it may be. The elders have earned enough experience in life. Their advices will help the youth. One should only take the advice of elders in that way. There are varieties of people. Only a few observe the different experiences properly and learn. Many a people learn very little even if they live for 100 years. By and large, the elderly people feel proud of their younger days. They have utter contempt, irritation and hatred towards the youth. They don’t recognise the change of times. What can the youth learn from such people? But our society insists to listen the elderly advice and follow.

The values give an authority to the elders. That authority is to impose their views on youngsters. The way this authority is imposed on the youngsters by the elders is regressive and contemptuous. Elders have the right to address the youth singularly. The elders think the youngsters know nothing. And hence they indulge in long lectures compulsorily. We see routinely the youth desperately try to escape from such ordeals. How many elders have the patience to listen for a few minutes what the youth think on an issue? Youngsters just bend themselves before the elders to receive their sermons. How many youngsters have the freedom to express their opinion without hesitation before the elders? Freedom of expression stands before the elders with bent knees, folded hands and closed mouth.

Apart from the parents and elders, we have constructed similar value on the teacher, the guru. Most of the castes were illiterates; hence the teacher who imparts education is kept on par with god. Our educational system also tells us that whatever is told by the teacher is Veda. Even if the teacher tells false ones, we have to accept it. You cannot point out the mistakes. If you do it, you are branded as an outcaste and an indisciplined lot. Ours, perhaps, is the lone educational system in the world which thrives without questioning.

I wrote a few articles pinpointing the unprincipled conducts prevailing among teachers. But the reaction was not over the conduct of the teachers. Many asked, “How can you write such bad things about teachers?” When we can write on every other section of the society, how can you exempt the teachers? Few others questioned, “You are a teacher. Yet how can you write such damaging things about teachers?” I could write such bad things prevailing among teachers because I am a teacher and I am observing them closely. But till today, I am neither appreciated by the teaching fraternity nor by the general public. Because the value has constructed a demigod status for the teacher.

We have no Freedom of expression from the parents, elders and teachers. This extends to many other fields. A dominating caste person might be very idiotic. But you are bound to listen his words. With the master-slave relationship prevailing in the caste system, where is the scope for freedom of expression? If you are a resourceful person, your words carry weight. And the words of the downtrodden don’t reach the right places. This extends to the persons holding power in the government. So, our value system has full of upper stage and lower stage right through.

Our values do not allow a person to communicate normally/naturally with another person. Expression is only one way traffic. You can’t object parental advice. You have to listen to the elders. What teacher says is Veda. You have to be a yes man before your boss. Only the officer’s words will stand in a sabha. It is immaterial whether the opinion is right or wrong. Who is telling it is very relevant. We have very little space for expressing the contrarian views. Even if you differ with other’s opinion, you can’t express it. You have to keep it within you. If you dare to express a differing view, you are disrespecting the strong and mighty. In the guise of giving respect to a fellow being, the value system prevents even a normal exchange of view among people. Only the free exchange of views can bring out different opinions. Differing opinions are the mark of a healthy debate.

As for as our society is concerned, there is no equality in expressing one’s views. Dialogue between fellow beings is not possible. There is no issue-based debate. Logical debates are existing only in books; absolutely lacking in everyday life. Wherever the question of freedom of expression is raised, the value system brings in words like prestige, honour & respect to choke the throat of freedom of expression. All men are equal is the basic philosophy of democracy. But this philosophy is new to us. For generations, we have treated people unequally. And the corresponding values manufactured by us sanction this inequality. Our talk on democracy is only in book. We practice just the opposite of democracy.

While we discuss about the freedom of expression, we must first deal with the existing inequalities in the practical life and the social values which sanctify such grinding & glaring inequalities. We should re-examine and re-investigate them. We should place our questions before them. Natural debate must take the front space. Time barred and outmoded values must be challenged and disobeyed. We must be prepared to change those sick and moth eaten values. Then only we can create a minimum acceptable platform for the freedom of expression, the very root of equality.

Perumalmurugan is a famous Tamil writer, poet and teacher. Very notable among his books is Madhorubagan (Ardhanareeswar). 

[The article was received from Sankara Narayanan]

Mar 03, 2018

Sankara Narayanan

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