Since news broke of the attack on Salman Rushdie, it has been heartening to see such a breadth of support expressed for him, even from unexpected quarters where he has been lauded as a hero of artistic freedom of expression. Not all quarters, however. Let’s leave to one side the fanatics in Iran and elsewhere who see his blasphemy and apostasy as a capital crime – their reaction is obvious. It was almost as disturbing seeing social media lit up with the weasel language of apologists to those who react violently against material that offends.
Although some of these apologists may be motivated by good intentions, others may not. Modern democracy requires that you examine both sides of the argument, listen to all sides and weigh up all evidence. It is also a natural instinct to look for meaning and justification when terrible events happen (Google “just-world fallacy”). But in this case, these instincts are misfiring, wrongfully looking for nuance and balance where it doesn’t exist.
‘Violence is wrong but don’t you think it is also wrong to offend people like he did?’ In a word: no. For the moment, let’s ignore the way this question casually compares writing words that no one is compelled read with the inflicting life-altering injuries. We should take issue with the very idea that giving offence is fundamentally ‘wrong’.
Some words do cause harm. Incitement to violence, incitement to hate, especially when these words target people who are socially vulnerable – words in this context can be a flame to a tinderbox. It is not harmful to be offended just because it happens. This applies even if the offence stems from literature, art or intellectual expression. The feeling of being offended may be uncomfortable and we may choose not to expose ourselves to them (they are largely voluntary experiences – you have to read The Satanic Verses to be offended by it, after all). But to be disturbed in our opinions, to have them challenged, to encounter a different – perhaps profoundly shocking – new idea or perspective: in the final analysis, far from harmful, these experiences are gifts we are lucky to receive.
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Even if we did accept that being offended is to be harmed somehow, we still couldn’t say that it was always wrong. While some things can cause harm, we accept them as part of the price for other things that are more valuable. Living in an open society with freedom to think and express one of these valuable things is certain.
Being able to speak freely and express ourselves makes us happier and more fulfilled. It is possible to express our opinions and creativity without fear. Freedom of expression fosters scientific and social progress. Truth emerges only when there is disagreement, dissent, or debate. Freedom of expression gives us access to the thoughts of others and through knowing their beliefs, values, and opinions, we not only have the opportunity to understand them better but to reconsider our own thoughts and to change our minds if we’re persuaded by views different from our own.
If we abandon these principles in the democratic global, we not only do a disservice to our freedom, but also betray those who are fighting for their freedom. In 1988, Iran’s leading novelists, critics, and poets, mainly Muslim, all immediately came to Rushdie’s defence, awarding him the nation’s highest literary prize – and they risked their lives to do so. In defense of Rushdie’s life and freedom of expression, Persian and Arab authors wrote a letter pleading for their own freedom of expression. They believe that no writer can thrive in a climate that restricts ideas.
‘Look what you made me do,’ says the offended party with the bloodied knife in his hand. This is a ridiculous defense. It is not acceptable in a free society. We see it becoming more accepted. We saw it in the aftermath analysis of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in 2015, we saw it after the killing of Samuel Paty in 2020, we saw it in the wake of a teacher going into hiding after showing images of Muhammad in a Batley Grammar School last year, and we’re again seeing it again with the attack on Salman Rushdie.