Governance and Policies

Democracy is an equal opportunity offender

Last year, a young Chinese citizen and I were trying to connect for a conversation. Skype seemed to be the most convenient medium, although once our chat commenced, she started apologising.

Aug 19, 2017
By Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Last year, a young Chinese citizen and I were trying to connect for a conversation. Skype seemed to be the most convenient medium, although once our chat commenced, she started apologising. That was not just for the quality of the connection, which kept dropping as during a cellphone conversation in Delhi. It was also because she had to use a virtual private network since she was in Beijing and foreign-owned instant messaging services are considered illegal there. The virtual private network (VPN), anonymising her local network, bypassed that block. This year, we wouldn’t be able to re-connect on Skype, since VPNs are now blocked by China. Obviously, VPNs with their ability to circumvent the Chinese checkers and gatekeepers of the Great Firewall, allowed access to content that the Communists find abhorrent, like those about same-sex relationships.
Silicon Valley’s behemoths that have been at the forefront of social justice combat in the United States, have happily capitulated before Beijing as is their collective track record since the advent of the Web. Freedom of expression, in their corporate calculus, is an optional extra, one, that at times is unaffordable.
But in coddling the Chinese censor, they compensate by getting a little more strident where free speech is protected. These are, obviously, democracies, like the US, Canada and India, three countries where I’ve spent the majority of my life. As a journalist, I’ve found each of their leaders has attracted less than laudatory lines, though the current US President, Donald Trump, has taken that to another level.
As India celebrated the 70th year of its freedom, it has largely maintained the part of its destiny that relates to being home to particularly argumentative people. Social media have amplified that noisy contest for duelling ideas, even if trolls go to war with weaponised words. In the US, Trump attracts historic opprobrium. Even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a global liberal darling, isn’t exempt from extreme opinions, both of the fawning and flaming varieties.
Which is great, actually. The thing about democracy is that it’s an equal opportunity offender; it often leaves half, sometimes more, of the population miserable. And the volume of that angst has been pumped up recently. This right to debate and dissent exists in exactly one system.
As British author EM Forster wrote in What I Believe: “Two Cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three.” And it offers plenty of latitude for jeers, as with the righteous chorus of outrage against the neo-Nazi extremists storming Charlottesville, Virginia.
This, then is a pause for praise before returning to our regularly planned panning. And relief that residents of democracies don’t often require VPNs to get their messages across. Today, I will take a deep breath and thank a system that allows me the space to vent; tomorrow, I can do just that, if I so wish.
Hindustan Times, August 19, 2017

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