By Pankaj Mishra
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s fatwa against author Salman Rushdie in 1989 made it clear that the greatest threat to artists, intellectuals and journalists in the modern age comes from authoritarian states. In recent years, the latter have increasingly outsourced violence to shadowy non-state actors. This dark trend has been underscored by the assassinations of dissident writers in Russia, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and many other countries.
Yet many in the West were quick to turn the attack on Rushdie by a Hezbollah groupie from New Jersey into “food for highly politicized controversies”, as the New York Times Put the. The unspeakable violence against Rushdie has become another “flashpoint in the heated 21st century debate over free speech, liberal values and ‘cancel culture’.”
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So the FinancialTimes editorializes that free speech “must be defended even more vehemently in the wake of Rushdie’s attack”. Moreover, “freedom of expression in a liberal society must include the prerogative to say upsetting or offensive things”.
Few will dispute this ancient saw of liberalism. Yet we must also consider the complex new fact that liberal society is endangered by many of those who vehemently defend free speech and the prerogative to say offensive things. The same week Rushdie was attacked, Alex Jones, the incredibly wealthy talk show host and founder of Free Speech Systems LLC, was ordered by a court to pay $45 million to bereaved parents deeply upset by his lie broadcast repeatedly that the 2012 massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School never happened.
Jones is just one of many entrepreneurs around the world who have cold-bloodedly monetized the right to offend – and thus helped poison politics and society on several continents. They thrive because liberal society’s appetite for people who say offensive things has never been greater. Certainly, their omnipresence and their success confirm that there has never been, for better or for worse, so much freedom of expression, especially deliberately offensive speech.
Anyone with a smartphone today is a potential newscaster, political analyst, historian, literary critic and conspiracy theorist on a range of digital platforms. Oddly, however, part of the mainstream Western intelligentsia insists that, like the Harper’s Letter in 2020, “the free expression of information and ideas is becoming more limited every day”.
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This unproven and unprovable notion is now back in circulation after the Rushdie attack. Thus, one sentence after having deplored the macabre assassination by the Saudi government of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the FinancialTimes invokes Harper’s Letter, asserting that “less brutal, but more insidious, perhaps, has been the effect of ‘cancellation culture’ on free speech.”
Western signatories to the Harper Letter may have been stung at times in their Twitter skirmishes. But the virtual lynching mobs, while more insidious than Saudi morons wielding bone saws, failed to silence any of them. In fact, some thinkers who are regularly “canceled” on social media enjoy flourishing careers; they confirm how easy it is today to secure a high income and a reputation in the West by claiming just victimization.
In the absence of concrete evidence of the widespread stifling of free speech, culture warriors have become purveyors of chilling speculation. In his report on the “heated debate” on freedom of expression last week, NYT quotes a Twitter commenter saying that “sensitive readers” in publishing houses today would hinder the publication of Satanic verses.
It might have been useful to ask Rushdie’s editors about this. Such conjecture could also have been counterbalanced by noting that much of what could not be published for centuries due to rampant racism, misogyny and homophobia is finally coming to print. .
The dominant beliefs of a society determine what can be published there at any given time. These beliefs, policed by a political and cultural establishment, are inevitably challenged when people previously excluded from the public sphere enter it with new media technologies. The outcome of such struggles for narrative authority is always ambiguous: more freedom of expression about some things and less about others.
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The question of “who can say what” cannot be separated from ongoing political struggles for power and from demographic and technological changes. This is why the debate on freedom of expression is constantly agitated and can never be resolved to the satisfaction of all debaters.
Members of an insecure cultural establishment in the West have become accustomed to fiercely imagining a golden age where speech would be truly free, unpunished by “cancellation of culture”. An aging commentator is particularly apt to see civilizational decline in his own loss of vigor and influence.
Yet the fear of slowly becoming useless is not as terrible a fate as the murder, torture and rape suffered by writers and journalists in Asia, Africa and Latin America, or the frighteningly real violence inflicted on Rushdie. It is more imperative than ever to ignore the narcissistic decline of a long-privileged Western minority and to correctly identify the real, resourceful and formidable persecutors of art and thought in the world.