On Voice

Illustration by Adoracia Nongkhlaw

We talk, chit-chat, babble, chatter and prattle. We use our voice to voluntarily express views, to exchange information, to signal changes in preferences, and to give or take advice. Thus, the role of voice in decision making, is universal, and it is this communication in the backdrop of heterogeneity, that gives rise to debate. Voice is to politics, what choice is to economics; and at the very heart of a democracy and its institutions, lies the extent to which citizens are able to express themselves by taking part in the political process, holding the state to account, and exercising their rights and duties efficiently.

It has been 50 years since the release of Albert O. Hirschman’s seminal work, ‘Exit, Voice, and Loyalty’ (1970) and yet, even in the 21st century, it still has a lot to tell us about human voice, and where it fits in the overarching scheme of individuals, firms, organizations and public institutions. Simply speaking, the central premise of the book, deals with the question of, “Should I stay or should I go?”, and what one must do when things go wrong – Does one walk away (Exit), protest (Voice), or suffer in silence (Loyalty)?

On the eve of Independence Day, 2020, the Supreme Court of India found Prashant Bhushan, a public interest lawyer and social activist known for his work on anti-corruption, guilty of “serious contempt of court” under the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. He was found guilty on grounds of scandalizing the court through two tweets he made, regarding the judiciary and the Chief Justice of India. The court took a strong stance on the matter, and has insisted that Bhushan tender an apology, to remit any punishment for the “offence”. Bhushan has refused, stating in his affidavit that his tweets were not posted in a “fit of absent-mindedness”, but that they reflected his “bona fide belief” on the state of judiciary in the country. Bhushan stood his ground, and was ultimately asked to pay a symbolic fine of one rupee by the court. He respectfully paid the fine, but also held that he still had the right to challenge the order, and seek judicial review.

In another move that brings to the forefront the limits of speech and expression in the public square, tweets by the stand-up comic Kumal Kamra drew the ire of the Supreme Court and contempt charges were filed. Kamra has refused to apologize for his tweets, stating that the silence of the Supreme Court on matters of other’s personal liberty cannot go uncriticized [sic].

While the nature and content of the tweets may or may not be relevant to the understanding of voice or how it can destabilize democracy, the judgements themselves set a worrying precedent for those who raise their voices within public institutions, and for those who hope and dream that their voices will bring about change. Although Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India guarantees to all its citizens, the right to freedom of speech and expression; Article 19(2) places reasonable restrictions on the exercise of this right. Further, Article 129 empowers the Supreme Court to punish individuals for their contempt. Coupled with Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code which deals with sedition, an individual’s position on free speech is further ambiguated, thus begging the question, should restrictions on free speech be reviewed?

Illustration by Adoracia Nongkhlaw

To answer this question, we consider a Cheap Talk setting (Crawford & Sobel, 1982), where the communication between a sender (an expert who has information) and a receiver (an individual who acts on that information), does not directly affect the payoffs of the game. The informed sender can strategically choose what to say, and not to say. Moreover, the communication is frequent, nonbinding, costless (and hence, cheap). However, we extend the idea further by assuming that some type of communication is subject to censorship and punishment by the regime.

We differentiate Cheap Talk from Signaling, where in the latter, informed agents communicate private information indirectly through their choices (Actions speak louder than words). Cheap Talk models however, address the question of how much information can be credibly transmitted when such communication is direct and costless (Talk is cheap). In the simplest setting of the game, there are multiple equilibria, which may be Separating (messages that reveal private information), or Babbling (random messages with no information disclosure). Cheap Talk models generally predict that there is always a Babbling Equilibrium, in which players deem all communication to be meaningless. Talk is cheap after all, and as a result, no one has any incentive to communicate anything meaningful.

However, what happens in the model, when a certain type of communication becomes costly, or even dangerous? In the variant of the game with censorship and punishment, we may have on one hand, an equilibrium in which players are forced to commit and send messages that reveal information without bias. On the other hand, there may exist an extreme equilibrium where no communication takes place and hence, there is no information revelation (Hoshino, 2017). Such an equilibrium may be sustained by increasing the severity of punishment for dissent. But ultimately, improvements in technology for monitoring communication can help cement it.

This is because, frequent censorship such as that exemplified in the line “Big Brother is watching you” (Orwell, 1949), virtually silences communication – Any messages that would be considered objectionable, will be intercepted before they are received and thus, players will never send such messages in the first place, out of fear of punishment. This is known as the Orwellian Theorem, and helps explain why the Pro-Democracy protests in China continue to remain at a small scale – An automated review process, and a huge workforce dedicated to the handpicking and censoring of “objectionable” online messages. In contrast, the Pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong, have taken an international character, thus illustrating the effectiveness of frequent censorship.

Media censorship is a hallmark of Authoritarian regimes. Although one may say that censorship is irrelevant in the day and age of the Internet, where censorship becomes increasingly costly and technologically challenging, one must also acknowledge that there are countries like China that spend an enormous amount of resources to ensure that any uncensored, “threatening” information is out of reach for its citizens.

Censorship cannot exist in a Libertarian dictionary, as it alters the choice architecture by removing options from one’s choice set; alters behaviour in unpredictable ways, and significantly changes one’s incentives (Thaler, 2009). Censorship therefore becomes self-defeating, as it replaces the human desire to repair societal institutions through voice, with the desire to remodel manners and language. It disincentivizes those individuals who are the most motivated, from participating in preserving democratic institutions.

Illustration by Adoracia Nongkhlaw

To question, challenge, criticize, dissent, or even verify, is the right of every citizen under the Constitution. All public institutions must develop a thick skin and be open to criticism; and this also includes the judiciary. At the same time, one must learn to draw a line between free speech and hate speech, and also between different forms of criticism. The principal aim of the judiciary is to protect the dignity of the court and the due administration of justice, and thus, personal attacks must be divorced from the offices that individuals occupy. This is an ongoing exercise that must be seen through, no matter how challenging.

Dialogue, discourse, deliberation, difference, debate, discussion, and dissent, are like the colors of a rainbow. They are what make the world, a vibrant and diverse place to live in. They are essential to a democracy, as they are tools for information aggregation, negotiation, and collective action. At 60 decibels, our voices are powerful. They can create empathy and understanding, fill you with joy, and establish a connection like nothing else in the world can. Human voices can help a country heal. So, let them.

 

References:

Crawford, V. P., & Sobel, J. (1982). Strategic information transmission. Econometrica: Journal of the Econometric Society, 1431-1451.

Government of India. (1950). Constitution of India.

Government of India. (1960). Indian Penal Code.

Hirschman, A. O. (1970). Exit, voice, and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations, and states (Vol. 25). Harvard University Press.

Hoshino, T. (2017). Communication, Censorship, and Coordination. Censorship, and Coordination (May 15, 2017).

Orwell, George (1949). Nineteen Eighty-Four. A novel. London: Secker & Warburg.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Penguin.

Author: Daniel Challam

Daniel Challam is a freelance writer and researcher, currently based in Delhi. He is a Postgrad from the Delhi School of Economics, and an Undergrad from Ramjas College, Delhi. A New Institutionalist by training, he loves taking models to the real world (and secretly enjoys proving them wrong, as long as they’re not his). His current interests lie in Political and Institutional Economics, Public Economics, and the Economics of Discrimination.

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