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What lovers must steal from the free speech movement

When the price for speaking up is high, people shut up. This is what happens at the political level, and this is exactly what happens between lovers too

Atul Dodiya’s ‘Devi And The Sink’ from ‘Saptapadi: Scenes From Marriage (Regardless)’. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road and Atul Dodiya
Atul Dodiya’s ‘Devi And The Sink’ from ‘Saptapadi: Scenes From Marriage (Regardless)’. Courtesy: Chemould Prescott Road and Atul Dodiya

On how they must be, lovers tend to derive from other lovers. That is why they are often miserable. There has to be a better idea for the blind than to follow the blind. They do derive a lot from literature too, which they would not if they actually met the writers who have said the most beautiful things about love. In fact, lovers should learn to be better lovers in places where no one tells them they should look—some of our grandest political and economic ideas.

Democracy teaches us that the best idea, which is yours, may not be as influential as the second best idea because the second best idea is everyone’s second best idea. Despotism teaches us that it works as long as you are making money. Marxism has always tried to tell us that a conflict is not an anomaly but often what we call life; and that the resolution of a conflict is not more important than the conflict itself.

But what offers the most useful practical lessons—not just for romantic lovers but also parents and children and siblings—is freedom of speech. As we know, it is a principle, upheld by more Beautiful People in Delhi than is believable, that we should not harm anyone for speaking his mind. Some comedians confuse free speech with offence. They go on to defame the idea of being offended. If we believe in or love anything at all, it is inevitable that we will be offended. We need to have faith in free speech not only when we need it but also for the times when we are offended. Free speech is not merely a right but also a duty. And that is what lovers should accept. There will be times when they are offended by the most important people in their lives. Full stop. So how should they respond?

Many years ago, after Aishwarya Rai announced the end of her relationship with Salman Khan in the form of a press release that she faxed to many publications, accusing him of “verbal, physical and emotional" abuse, I spoke to several people who were close to both the stars to write a magazine story about their tumultuous love. One person told me that Rai used to punish Khan through silences; he was unaccustomed to that form of punishment, and it drove him crazy. At the time, I was about 27, and I did not understand why mere silence should drive someone crazy—in fact, if your girlfriend wishes to be nasty and offers silence, that should be a relief. Some readers too wondered why any person must overreact to silence; but many readers understood the silent treatment as a potent punishment. All lovers punish but the reasons and methods vary, as does the impact on the targets of the punishment too. Some lovers give a long rope before they choose to inflict punitive measures; some have a low threshold and they punish even if there are no great transgressions of the kind Rai claimed to have endured. Lovers punish their lovers for statements, behaviour, mannerism, inaction, and the fear of such punishment may greatly influence the nature of the relationship.

When the price for speaking up is high, people shut up. This is what happens at the political, social and religious and corporate levels in all societies, and this is exactly what happens between lovers too—everything in love is out of proportion but when the punishment is disproportionate to the offence, it does exactly what an authoritarian state does to its citizens, artists and salaried journalists—people begin to curb their own expression. And when people in love do not have the freedom to say what they want to say or do what they wish to, they will fall out of love just to find that freedom. Love, like a mature democracy, must work towards lowering the price one has to pay for offending.

But it appears that many lovers are a lot like India—they grant free speech in theory because they wish to be principled, but not in practice. Actually, many lovers behave a lot like China.

Like all important ideas, the advantages of free speech too can be explained without morality. In fact, the doom of romantic authoritarianism can be explained by two popular ideas that are dear to economics and business—the law of diminishing returns, and the competency trap. Extracting a high cost from a lover for an offence, while profitable in the beginning, will increasingly yield less as its potency wears off through repetition. Also, people who are highly successful in getting the relationship they want by meting out tactical punishments do not find the need to develop peacetime strategies that might be more essential as the circumstances of the couple change with age.

But all this does not mean that people can go around stating whatever they wish to their lovers and expect tolerance. There have been times when I have seen men use the ruse of humour to insult their wives. But then isn’t the freedom to express malice an important part of free speech? Isn’t most of nasty humour and art actually a form of aggression? There could be an argument that cartoonists should be allowed to insult and hurt whomever they wish to, but I don’t think this form of free speech makes any sense to love because the objective of love is not freedom. Happiness maybe, but not freedom. Political free speech has to be complete and universal—worthy of both Galieleo and homeopathy. The free speech of lovers cannot be absolute.

In any case, there is no point in telling people in relationships, as they glow in the full powers they have over others, how to be better people. People often do not lose love after a valiant battle. In the end, people throw love away for no good reason.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

He tweets at @manujosephsan

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