Making insensitive statements

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At around 2 am on October 4, President Donald Trump came before his supporters and declared victory even as votes were being counted in many states and the election results were unclear. He said “As far as I am concerned, we have already won this election”. Trump also asserted that a fraud was being attempted on the American people; his clear implication was that he was being robbed of the election. He also said that he would go to the Supreme Court for redressal.

In the hours that followed his leads in many states narrowed. As I write these lines the election result remains in the balance. It does seem though Joe Biden will beat Trump, though in such close elections it is necessary for all the votes to be counted for the results to be finally known. Clearly Trump is unwilling to take this sensible approach. After the speech Trump tweeted his charge of fraud but in doing so cast a doubt on the integrity of the electoral process itself. His campaign also began to petition the courts in some states where his leads were coming under strain to stop the counting. While approaching the courts is a legal option open to all candidates in elections almost all over the world, Trump’s accusations were basically irresponsible. They had the potential of causing unrest and violence in a society and polity which is thoroughly polarised.

Trump is a serial offender in the irresponsible use of words. His statements have sometimes been full of bluster and empty threats.  Leaders in high offices or those who have held such offices or in public life especially in significant countries are expected to carefully weigh and measure their words and proceed with great deliberation and caution. The loose use of words can harm people and cause even lasting damage. And, the deliberate use of provocative language is also irresponsible. It can rouse and outrage emotions leading to violence. At the same time provocations can never be an excuse for violent reactions and cannot be justified in any context.

Two other instances of insensitive expression of opinion were witnessed in the recent part. The first was in France by President Emmanuel Macron and correct. Macron denounced violence and terrorism. This was entirely appropriate. The brutal murder of a Paris teacher and another set of killings a few days later were terrorist acts. They were rightly condemned by world leaders.  But Macron also made comments on Islam which were deeply resented in the Islamic world. He made these remarks before and after the killing of the teacher who had shown caricatures to illustrate the principle of freedom of expression to his students. He had given his Muslim pupils the choice of leaving the classroom if they thought that it would be inappropriate for them to see the caricatures.

The second instance of recent insensitive statements came from former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Mahathir is now 95. He had remained Prime Minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003 and then made a stunning come back at the age of 92 in 2018 for a second term. Always outspoken Mahathir has never shirked controversy but there is a difference between controversy and irresponsibility. In response to Macron’s comment Mahathir wrote in his blog “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past”. He went on to add “But far and large Muslims have not applied the ‘eye for an eye’. Muslims don’t. The French shouldn’t. Instead the French should teach their people to respect other people’s feelings”.

In raising the past Mahathir obviously was referring to the perpetration of violence by colonial powers. It is true that colonialism’s foundation was violence and indeed the purpose of violence was to create terror in the colonised. This was witnessed in India throughout the colonial period but is remembered in episodes such as at Jallianwala Bagh in April 1919. The question though is how back should history be examined to redress past grievances?

While leaders cannot take recourse to the principle of freedom of expression it would be useful to briefly dwell on this idea for there are basic differences on its ambit. For the French freedom of expression extends to the right to mock almost everything including religions. In many democratic countries however freedom of expression cannot provide a refuge for blasphemy or outraging the sentiments of adherents of different faiths. This is so in India as well. The Indian state has taken care to not allow freedom of expression to extend to outraging the religious sentiments. Accordingly, it has even banned works of fiction such as Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” though it was allowed to circulate freely in Western countries. In some countries though blasphemy punishments are excessive.

European countries have seen an erosion of faith in the indigenous populations. It cannot be said that their peoples have become more rational and logical but the fact is that matters of faith do not really interest large segments of their populations. Hence, adverse comments on matters of faith do not provoke them as they do those who sincerely practice their faith who get enraged at adverse comments on their religions.

While the right to express views on religious issues cannot be denied to anyone these views should be made in a balanced and respectful way. They should never be provocative. This applies especially to political leaders.