WHAT ARE THE BOUNDS OF FREE SPEECH?
The attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie on August 12 has reignited debate about freedom of speech. 33 years ago, he wrote a book entitled “The Satanic Verses” which included fictional mention of Mohammed. Three months later, on Valentine’s Day 1989 the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran delivered a fatwa, a religious decree, calling on “all brave Muslims of the world [to] kill [the author] without delay.” Although, official denunciations of Salman Rushdie have diminished, the fatwa remains and finally someone tried to murder him and nearly succeeded.
Rushdie was attacked because of what he wrote and because of what the Ayatollah wrote.
Is that fatwa protected speech in the USA and elsewhere? It might be, because it is promulgated as a religious act. I remember a preacher recently proposed stoning gays to death; it was widely reported. Were I to try to post a suggestion that we do mortal damage to the ____ (fill in the blank with the name of a national leader) I would be banned from social media and arrested by the police. I am not an Ayatollah.
Can we have both unconditional respect for everyone’s dignity and also unlimited free speech?
The implied demands of the two are mutually exclusive. It is currently self-evident that respect for everyone includes respect for their feelings, so restraint is not only advocated but required. Subject matter and terminology that offends or consigns a recipient to any type of unhappiness or discomfort must be avoided, and the perpetrator must bear responsibility along with all those who supported the perpetrator into the position where such injurious expressions were possible. There are penalties for those who transgress. They include relegating the offender to shunning and rejection.
Teachers have been fired and schools have been attacked for such things as suggesting that students think again about a historical event or a literary classic. The State of Florida has now made it illegal to “say the word gay” in any school in the state. Ethnic references can be branded as slurs and academics must take care.
Reports about these incidents are so cautionary that anyone who will write or speak to an unrestricted audience tends to hesitate and self-censor. Nesrine Malik commented, “The enemies today aren’t Muslims or beardy clerics, but those described as social justice warriors, whose overzealousness in protecting marginalized identities wields what some equate to a fatwa: self-censoring, no-platforming, ‘cancellation’.” [“Admire Rushdie as a writer and a champion – but don’t forget he is a man of flesh and blood”, The Guardian, 15 Aug 2022]
Self-censorship, too, is a limitation of expression. It may not be an outright breach of freedom of speech as understood by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the First Amendment to the US Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and freedom of speech. But it is a principle in practice that has power. It is not entirely a voluntary observation of social boundaries since a significant motive is to avoid consequences that would otherwise, presumably, be forthcoming. This self-censoring feels compelled. Things are being withheld.
Encapsulated sounds do not reverberate. Censorship deprives society of unspecified contributions that come from robust debate and generation of alternative ideas neither debater anticipated. Most of the time this loss of potential contributions is too abstract and hypothetical to influence censors’ decisions. They are un-swayed by what might have been.
Yet it is also obvious that some expression is corrosive and inflammatory. These eruptions may be caused by hate or ignorance; the one is largely voluntary but the other is not. The results, once set in motion, are irretrievable and too often irremediable.
The antisemitic rants of a small clique in Germany in the 1920s led to the Holocaust. Very recent outbreaks of violence in the USA are too numerous to try to list. But it was rhetoric, first of all, that led to a mob invading the US Capitol on January 6, 2020. At the local level, a hateful remark, even if it is a lie, can destroy some part of a target’s life if not all of it.
In any case, context matters and context evolves. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884 was a remarkable work that abolished racial prejudices by narrating them. Today, a lot of the language of that time is considered derogatory and forbidden. In the UK The Satanic Verses and its author are protected, but not in Iran. Context triumphs, almost always.
Religious context, unfortunately, evolves reactively. It is inevitably slower than culture at large. When a religion has become cultic (with authority to control social behavior and with actions that are not accountable to any higher power) the cult tends to imagine threats with supernatural origins now invading the human domain. They take it as a holy duty to combat threats with all the weapons at their disposal. It is well to include in this category even secular cults such as those which elevate a supreme leader or royalty to a level beyond criticism.
This is how blasphemy supersedes all lesser expressions. So it is, that written and spoken utterances come to be considered as pernicious as physical acts of violence, or more so. After all, a bomb decimates a target and is over and done with, but a work of art exerts influence who-knows-where.
As the culture war of the twenty-first century continues, the battles become personal. Rather than posing ideas and concepts for dialogue, the first thought is to ferret out illicit thinkers for castigation. A transgression, even if it is a blunder, potentially invalidates everything the person has done, unless that work has been simply massive and renders the person beyond cancellation. Circumstances matter, of course. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings (and his associations) got him killed in a Nazi prison just days before the war ended that would have spared him, but he is considered a saint. Winston Churchill would be a villain if some people had their say, but that demotion is unlikely. Harry Potter (i.e. the importance of the books and films) still elevates J.K Rowling above most of the flood of disdain she let loose for her persistent rants against trans people, but she keeps undermining herself and reminding us how much she is endangering people who used to love her. Robert E Lee is not the hero he was a hundred years ago.
Unsurprisingly, Salman Rushdie has been a leader in the freedom of expression movement that proposes, somewhere, there is a clear difference between writing which peaceably challenges and that which violently devastates. Beyond that which is verifiably true, there is that which expands our experience. Writing which makes life safer and more understandable must be protected if society is to prosper. Fiction must not be taken as an assault on any non-fictional reality, although it may pry open new options for consideration. Academic writing is legitimate on any subject as long as the applicable rules of the discipline are carefully adhered to. Propaganda, even sheer opinion in behalf of a suspicious cause, must be allowed if it is understood to be the conjecture that it is and is not proposed as something else (which it often is).
Opposition to unfettered legitimate free expression is increasingly vigorous. I am persuaded it is time to defend the truth, the right to search for still more truth, and the right to say what we have found. The context for doing this must be mutual respect of everyone’s dignity. Survival is at stake.
I have written on related topics. Links to those blog-essays are as follows:
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.