We receive complaints and compliments, queries and suggestions, and opinions and views in the form of letters. Sometimes the opening sentence is a major giveaway. For instance, if the letter starts with the sentence, “I am neither a BJP member nor a supporter of the RSS but…”, it is invariably against one of our editorials or opinion articles defending the plural fabric of our society. But there are letters that are written in muted forms, bordering on self-deprecation, that open up the space for debate. A recent letter asked about the differences in editorial approach between the main paper and the supplements: Sunday Magazine, Friday Review, MetroPlus, EducationPlus, and so on. The reader wanted to know whether the editorial values are applicable across the board or only to the main newspaper, and said that some columns in the supplements seem flippant, thus failing to uphold the general editorial values.
It was a column, “What’s the big deal with Simbu’s ‘Beep song’?”(MetroPlus, Chennai, December 18, 2015), that triggered the debate. The protests were about two aspects in the column. The first was the opening paragraph: “There’s a new disease out there. The symptoms include reddening of the eyes, a dramatic rise in blood pressure, eyes bulging, and a manic need to bite people’s head off. It is called Taking Offenciasis, and India seems to be suffering from quite the epidemic. It was in public display recently, when middle-aged women, who seemed suspiciously infuriated, took to the streets, and burned posters of Simbu and Anirudh in protest of the recently released ‘Beep Song’.” And the second was the assertion that “we’ve had far worse over the years, and rightly refrained from making a big deal about them.”
U. Vasuki, national vice president of the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA), responded by raising a series of questions. She wrote: “[The Column] is more than one bird in a shot — trivialise intolerance angst and gender concerns as well. Winking, tongue-in-cheek at the ‘middle-aged women’ taking to streets, (is age a criterion to stand up to injustice?) he goes on to a camouflaged defence of the song, condoning the critical bits to nothing more than ‘infantile bawling’. And he wants us to naively swallow his revelation that obscene words were ‘beeped out’ like in television, whereas the beeps in this song are specifically intended to underline rather than to obscure.”
She questioned the assertion that the protest amounts to “curtailing expression” and that “art is in serious danger” for seeing red in an “amusing” song. “Would it then follow, for example, in a depiction that blames attire for the sexual attack on women, are art and freedom not endangered? The point is that this article is just another of the multi-dimensional gender insensitivity pervading,” said Ms. Vasuki. According to her, in the ‘Beep song’, obscenity is most brazen, offensive, and categorically objectionable, and hence, the protest is a democratic response.
Free speech and hate speech

I tend to agree with Ms. Vasuki’s viewpoint. Is there a limit to misogyny? Is raising issues about gender sensitivity an assault on free speech? Is a protest against an obscene song a sign of intolerance? Sudhir Srinivasan’s column creates a false war between free speech and hate speech. Recently Kara Swisher, Executive Editor, Re/code, looked at the issues that separate free speech from hate speech. “The first knee-jerk reaction of those who think completely free speech is the paramount rule of the Internet is simple: Stop whining, you stupid girl, and take it, because everyone should be able to say exactly what they want, however they want and in whatever way they want to say it. It’s a canard of an argument, designed to turn a complex issue into a reductive black-and-white debate where no one can come to any agreement,” she wrote. If we love speech and value dissent, and if we do not tolerate hate, we should be clear about what journalism actually is.
“Journalism is not free expression. It is constrained expression, we operate in a framework of ethical values, we have public purpose and our form of expression is ‘other regarding’… We take into account, we consider the impact of what we do, what we say, what we broadcast and its impact on others. Social networking is self-regarding,” explains Aidan White of the Ethical Journalism Network. Stylistically, the back-of-the-book features tend to be more colourful and descriptive than the front-of-the-book news reports. But that cannot be an excuse to become an alibi for justifying entrenched misogyny.