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Free choice: Isn’t that what got you elected?

The big story that burnt the pages in every newspaper and the studios of every major TV channel last week was the debate on the banning of porn. The government of the day felt that this is bad for all of us, based on a PIL filed by an Indore-based lawyer, and decided to block 857 websites that were identified as defiling and corrupting Indian society (we were a pure and pious nation before these websites, of course).

Fortunately, unlike in the case of other such protective decisions that they have taken on our behalf so far, the government  quickly retracted the decision and limited the ban to websites indulging in child pornography.

Of course, the ban had its very strong proponents. One amazing counter to the government’s reversal came from a panelist on a recent TV debate. She claimed that the label of child pornography should not necessarily be limited to content that uses children as actors. She felt that the definition must include the access that children get to adult content. There are interesting extensions to that logic if you think about it. So you will now have ‘child beer’ (along with chilled beer) and ‘child tobacco’, as new labels for the stuff that gets into the hands of children. I was left wondering why we don’t ban those war games that children play on their handheld devices. This should then prevent the potential proliferation of children growing up to be terrorists!

The fact is that each of us can come up with tenuous cause and effect relationships for any number of activities that lead to adverse effects on children, society, the environment, peace between nations and whatever else. One US-returned academic quotes a clear link that she established between pornography and violence against women after having interviewed 300 people! 
It is understandable that as individuals with backgrounds and experiences each of us will have a view of what is acceptable. And so be it. The bigger issue in all this is with the state deciding what is good or bad for us. There is little evidence available to demonstrate that getting rid of anything is beneficial to society. Including deathrow inmates.

Even before the Internet nailed the availability obstacle 20 years ago, it was fairly evident that most things that were officially banned would any way find their way through other access points, provided people really wanted them. Take alcohol. You put an official stop to it and the bootlegging industry takes over in full swing. 

So what is the mechanism that decides what I can and cannot do? Particularly within the confines of a private citizen’s private life? Shouldn’t it be decided by the freedom of choice of the individual? As much as I have the right to avoid restaurants that serve beef or exposure to adults copulating, my neighbour should have the right to indulge in both. And as much as my neighbour exercised the free choice of voting for the party that came to rule, I needn’t have. Isn’t that the mechanism which brings governments to power?

This is ultimately what a free society is built on, if indeed that is what we define ourselves as (everyday we make free choices about what airline we should fly and which soap works best for our skin).And most well-governed free societies have enough checks and balances to ensure that the abuse of such choices are stringently blocked by law. 

We must keep in mind that democratically elected governments are the biggest beneficiaries of free choice. Why would they want to take away that right from the very people who exercised that freedom to bring them to power? 

The author is president and CKO, EQUiTOR Value Advisory and can be reached at ramesh@equitor.com.


Unknown said...

Thought provoking article, but, i believe exercising freedom of choice is not an absolute right under the Constitution of India. On the contrary, an individual surrenders a bundle of his/her personal rights to the sovereign in return for a set of assurances and guarantees on liberty, safety and ways of exercising personal choice. A step further, the constitution does provide for curtailing certain rights which are guaranteed by it, if they are opposed to public order or policy and this is a discretion vested in the Government of the day.

In addition, free choice can never be a foundation stone for peaceful co-habitation, a cornerstone of modern day desired way of living and hence has been subjected to different constraints. While i do agree that prohibition is not a solution and would breed illegal practices, Governments of the day are not equipped to drive a message of right use to all sections as there is no one size fits all. Therefore societies will keep experimenting and evolving over a period, suffering such implicit idiocy.