To Name the Unnameable

Satanic-verses_468wKenan Malik in Eurozine:

It is this idea of speech as intrinsically good that has been transformed. Today, free speech is as likely to be seen as a threat to liberty as its shield. By its very nature, many argue, speech damages basic freedoms. It is not intrinsically a good but inherently a problem because speech inevitably offends and harms. Speech, therefore, has to be restrained, not in exceptional circumstances, but all the time and everywhere, especially in diverse societies with a variety of deeply held views and beliefs. Censorship (and self-censorship) has to become the norm. “Self-censorship”, as the Muslim philosopher and spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques Shabbir Akhtar put it 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.”

Increasingly politicians and policy makers, publishers and festival organizers, 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.” What the anti-Baals of today most fear is starting arguments. What they most want is for the world to go to sleep.

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.