“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” ~ Salman Rushdie
|Sir Salman Rushdie|
The hero and villain are clear in this story: Rushdie, on the side of democratic values and free expression, is the good guy. The Ayatollah Ruhallah Khomeini, who called for Rushdie’s head? Bad guy. We can all rally behind Rushdie. We champion his right to offend without breaking a sweat … mostly because he doesn’t offend us.
But what about the case of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula?
Several weeks ago, a trailer for a low-budget film went viral on YouTube. The film was reportedly made in the US by Nakoula, an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian, and was intended to do what it accomplished: really upset Muslims. Riots and protests have broken out all over the world in response to the clip, often from people who haven’t seen it. As with Rushdie’s novel, the protesters just know that their religion was insulted: they don’t ask for details.
Most of us in the US are appalled by Nakoula and his film. We want nothing to do with him. Thanks, but we’ll stick to defending Rushdie. The problem? This easy-out allows those who are most easily offended, who are least reasonable, to decide what everyone else gets to say. That’s not the point of living in a democracy. We went through that whole Enlightenment thing not just to defend the likes of Rushdie (easy) but to defend the likes of Nakoula (ick). We can, and should, denounce the content of Nakoula’s film: it was, according to virtually all who have seen it, obnoxious and incendiary. But we should also, and more loudly, denounce the protesters who hold an ideological gun to our heads, and tell us we better speak the proper speak or the world will go up in flames. We cannot allow their outrage to control our tongues.
|A loud minority|
The United States indeed has no blasphemy laws per se, and fewer hate-speech laws than, say, Europe, where Holocaust denial is illegal. In contrast, many Islamic countries have no free presses at all, only government-controlled media. Blasphemy is criminalized and strictly enforced. It is difficult for people in such places to understand that anyone can say pretty much anything in a democracy: the government doesn’t vet or sponsor the speech of its citizens.
As a writer, I frequently self-censor for this reason. I worry that my autobiographical fiction might upset a family member or friend, and I take pains to disguise an anecdote to avoid offense. I worry that a liberal use of foul language or sexuality, appropriate and honest as it may be for the scene or character, will cause an agent, editor, or audience to turn away from me. Writers may also self-censor if their viewpoints on religion, sex, class, and war stand apart from their peers, and this is more insidious. We may feel we must bend to the mainstream in order to have a voice. But if we do that, what are we really saying? In fact, we have nothing to say at all. We’re just parroting the zeitgeist: we end up in an echo chamber. The most influential and important voices are those that can break out of those restrictions and say something new, uncomfortable … and possibly offensive.
This is not to say that offensive speech equals useful speech. Rushdie and Nakoula may both have offended Muslims, but only one had anything constructive to say. Offensive speech can be quotidian or game-changing: the offense in itself isn’t the point. The content is the point. To be a game-changer, you’d better have more than just the ability to piss people off. You had better be able to make them think.
|Gay Talese, Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, and Gore Vidal|
I think that point is debatable, as we do have the Sam Harrises and Richard Dawkinses of the world—but they are not novelists. I recently reread Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale, which imagines future America as a tyrannical theocracy, and Steinbeck’s grim call for reform, The Grapes of Wrath, and I wonder where we can find such impassioned, daring novels today. The subject doesn’t have to be religion: it can be politics or economics. Steinbeck and Ayn Rand each vehemently criticized economic systems, though in completely different ways. A quick glance through the past decade’s literary standouts fails to reveal anything similar. Novelists can have an enormous impact on culture: Conservative politicians today cite Rand as if she were an actual economist, and Orwell’s novels serve as an admonition across the political spectrum. Today, when we want to warn against the dangers of government surveillance, we still have to say “Big Brother is watching you!” We’ve come up with nothing better on that front since 1949.
|Not banned from MY bookshelf|
At its peak, Phillip Pullman’s series His Dark Materials was ranked second in the top-ten books people have tried to ban in the US. The series has a question-dogma message buried within its exciting adventure plot—buried, but not deeply enough. The easily-offended caught wind of blasphemy and pounced right on the series, denouncing it and demanding it be removed from libraries.
In response, Pullman told the Guardian newspaper, “Of course it's a worry when anybody takes it upon themselves to dictate what people should or should not read. The power of organized religion is very strong in the US, and getting stronger because of the internet.” Possibly the most famous challenged author of recent years is, of course, JK Rowling, for her Harry Potter series. Before he was made Pope, Joseph Ratzinger himself condemned the books, writing that their “subtle seductions, which act unnoticed ... deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly.” One cannot imagine Ratzinger read the series any more than the Ayatollah read Rushdie. At least nobody asked for Rowling’s head.
|Burning blasphemous books at a church in Shreveport, LA|
At last week’s UN General Assembly, many Muslim leaders called on the international community to tighten restrictions on free speech and to ban blasphemy. Egypt’s new president said that his country “respects freedom of expression” unless it is “used to incite hatred against anyone [or is] directed toward one specific religion or cult." In other words, free speech is great as long as it’s totally inoffensive. The president of Yemen opened his speech to the UN by demanding similar limits to free speech: “These behaviors find people who defend them under the justification of the freedom of expression,” he said. “These people overlook the fact that there should be limits for the freedom of expression, especially if such freedom blasphemes the beliefs of nations and defames their figures.” The Arab League’s secretary-general went further still, proposing a binding “international legal framework” to “criminalize psychological and spiritual harm” caused by statements that “insult the beliefs, culture and civilization of others."
Criminalizing “spiritual harm?” One can only imagine what George Orwell, Ayn Rand, and Margaret Atwood would have had to say to that. It is up to us, as writers, not to allow the outraged to silence us. If we aren’t actively writing “blasphemous” books, we ought to be doing everything we can to stand up for those who do.
*My “Scientologist friend” is purely rhetorical: i.e., nonexistent.
|OK! I'm done! I'm done!|