If Daniel Kahneman struggles every day to overcome his biases, there isn’t much hope for the rest of us. All of us like to validate our preconceived notions, inserting selective reasons to justify our ends. That’s how we are built. Yet it is possible to spot biases, if after the fact, and to resist from making the most egregious errors of judgment. Social science would otherwise be pointless, and all news and views useless. This is why curtailing free speech is never a good idea as well. Even from seemingly discordant cacophony of biased voices, a sliver of nuance can—and does—often emerge.
Yet what we see is creeping danger to free speech, around the world, and increasingly in South Asia. Perhaps the situation is the worst in Bangladesh, where 13 journalists have been killed in their line of duty since 1992. India is catching up. The Modi government has effectively bought off or co-opted India’s most major media houses. With the new laws on online media and social media, even the few remaining critical outlets could be silenced. To hit home its point, celebrities who have criticized the government have been framed for crimes.
The situation in Nepal is troubling as well. Existing or proposed laws curb the freedom of online media outlets and criminalize social media posts the government deems inappropriate. Another troubling trend is also taking hold. If you write or broadcast something that doesn’t chime with biases of social influencers, the latter often go into a rabid attack-mode. The goal becomes not to engage in vigorous debates on important topics, but to shame and silence those they disagree with. In the end, what ends up happening are not so much informed debates as shouting matches over social media. This, of course, only gives the illiberal government an added excuse to regulate unruly online outlets and views.
But whatever the case, functioning democracy and regulated speech just don’t go together. Principally, freedom of speech should be absolute. Once you start regulating it, you are on a slippery slope. Practically, only the speech that overtly promotes violence, disturbs inter-communal harmony, and dehumanizes people of certain class, faith and gender should be out of bounds. Monitoring ‘foul language’ and ‘sensitive content’ is, in a way, dehumanizing people. Strong emotions and biases are part and parcel of being human—and you cannot regulate human nature.