Changing landscape of free speech

Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect,’ we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:26 pm IST

Published - February 12, 2014 01:37 am IST

Twenty five years ago on February 14, the Ayotollah Khomeini issued his fatwa on Salman Rushdie, for the “blasphemies” of his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses . It is perhaps disturbingly apposite that this should also be the week in which Penguin, the publishers of The Satanic Verses , should so abjectly surrender to hardline Hindu groups over Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History , agreeing to withdraw it from publication in India. The contrast between the attitude of the old Penguin and that of the new Penguin tells us much about how much the Rushdie affair itself has transformed the landscape of free speech.

Thanks to the Ayatollah’s fatwa , the Rushdie affair became the most important free speech controversy of modern times. It also became a watershed in our attitudes to freedom of expression. Rushdie’s critics lost the battle — The Satanic Verses continues to be published (though, of course, not in India). But they won the war. The argument at the heart of the anti-Rushdie case — that it is morally unacceptable to cause offence to other cultures — is now accepted almost as common sense.

In 1989, after the fatwa , Rushdie was forced into hiding for almost a decade. Translators and publishers were assaulted and even murdered. In July 1991, Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese professor of literature and translator of The Satanic Verses , was knifed to death on the campus of Tsukuba University. That same month another translator of Rushdie’s novel, the Italian Ettore Capriolo, was beaten up and stabbed in his Milan apartment. In October 1993, William Nygaard, the Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses , was shot three times and left for dead outside his home in Oslo. Bookshops were firebombed for stocking the novel. And yet, except where there were state bans, Penguin refused to withdraw the book.

Peter Mayer was the CEO of Penguin at the time. He was subject to a vicious campaign of hatred and intimidation. “I had letters delivered to me written in blood,” he remembered. “I had telephone calls in the middle of the night, saying not just that they would kill me but that they would take my daughter and smash her head against a concrete wall. Vile stuff.” Yet neither Mayer nor Penguin countenanced backing down. What was at stake, Mayer recognised, was “much more than simply the fate of this one book. How we responded to the controversy over The Satanic Verses would affect the future of free inquiry, without which there would be no publishing as we knew it, but also, by extension, no civil society as we knew it.”

It is an attitude that now seems to belong to a different age. The contrast with Penguin’s decision this week to withdraw all copies of Doniger’s The Hindus is striking. Unlike in the case of The Satanic Verses there has been so far no state ban. But, the publisher has crumbled in the face of groups shouting “offence.”

Peter Mayer and the old Penguin belonged to a world in which the defence of free speech was seen as an irrevocable duty. “We all came to agree,” Mayer told me, “that all we could do, as individuals or as a company, was to uphold the principles that underlay our profession. We were publishers. I thought that meant something. We all did.” He took his cue from Baal, the irreverent, satirical poet in The Satanic Verses . “A poet’s work,” Baal observes, “To name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world and stop it from going to sleep.”

Today’s Penguin, like many publishers, like many liberals, takes Baal’s observation to be not self-evident but shockingly offensive. To such an extent has the Rushdie affair transformed the landscape of free speech that what many fear today is precisely the starting of arguments. What they most want is for the world to go to sleep.

“Self-censorship,” the Muslim philosopher and spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques Shabbir Akhtar claimed at the height of the Rushdie affair, “is a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held convictions. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s — not least every Muslim’s — business.”

Cultural pain Increasingly, politicians and policymakers, publishers and festival organisers, liberals and conservatives, in the East and in the West, have come to agree. Whatever may be right in principle, many now argue, in practice one must appease religious and cultural sensibilities because such sensibilities are so deeply felt. We live in a world, so the argument runs, in which there are deep-seated conflicts between cultures embodying different values. For such diverse societies to function and to be fair, we need to show respect for other peoples, cultures, and viewpoints. Social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural beliefs are given equal recognition and respect. The avoidance of cultural pain has, therefore, come to be regarded as more important than the abstract right to freedom of expression. As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, “If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.”

The consequence of all this has been the creation not of a less conflicted world, but of one that is more sectarian, fragmented and tribal. As the novelist Monica Ali has put it, “If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, ‘My feelings are more hurt than yours’.” The more that policymakers give licence for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. It leads to the encouragement of interest groups and the growth of sectarian conflict.

Nowhere is this trend clearer than in India. There is a long history, reaching back to British rule, of applying heavy-handed censorship supposedly to ease fraught relationships between different communities. It is a process that in recent decades has greatly intensified. Hand-in-hand with more oppressive censorship has come, however, not a more peaceful society, but one in which the sense of a common nation has increasingly broken down into sectarian rivalries, as every group demands its right not to be offended. The original confrontation over The Satanic Verses was a classic example of how in encouraging groups to feel offended, one simply intensifies sectarian conflict. Penguin’s capitulation over the Doniger book is another step down that road.

Plural societies and free speech The “never give offence” brigade imagines that a more plural society requires a greater imposition of censorship. In fact it is precisely because we do live in plural societies that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In such societies, it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. It is inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable; and we should deal with those clashes openly and robustly rather than suppress them. It is important because any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: “You can’t say that!” is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.

The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. Once we give up on the right to offend in the name of “tolerance” or “respect,” we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice. The right to “subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism” is, in other words, the bedrock of an open, diverse, just society.

Shabbir Akhtar was right: what Salman Rushdie says is everybody’s business. So is what Wendy Doniger says. It is everybody’s business to ensure that no one is deprived of their right to say what they wish, even if it is deemed by some to be offensive. If we want the pleasures of pluralism, we have to accept the pain of being offended.

(Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster.)

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