#186: Salman Rushdie and the Case for Free Speech

Monument to the Burning of Giordano Bruno at the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.
(“To Bruno – from the age he divined  – here where the fire burned”).

To my shame, I must admit that to this day I have never read any of Salman Rushdie’s novels. I have read some of his non-fiction writings and have seem some interviews with him. As far as I can tell, he is a fantastically erudite, soft spoken, kind and immensely entertaining person. All of this is beside the point.

It does not matter what Rushdie has written, what he has said, what he is thinking, who he has allegedly insulted in order to arrive at the conclusion that his speech, his health, and his life are sacred, and his right to speak and write, to be healthy and alive need to be protected, just as all of ours have to be protected.

Freedom of speech is absolute. It holds true for angels and demons, saints and criminals, sages and idiots, for the benevolent and malevolent alike. Even though I have written about this before, let me try to explain this again.

We all disagree with some things some people say. We all, probably, wish we would not have to listen to whatever offends us on some or many levels. I could live a happy life, probably, not having read or known some of the things of which I am sadly aware. But would I, really? Is not disagreement the greatest gift somebody could give us? What better way to hone your own arguments, your own convictions, your own opinions than to subject them to critique, to other opinions, to even the absolute opposite? What is light without darkness, what is truth without the lie, what is life without death?

Furthermore, if we were to protect us against perceiving anything we might disagree with, and only surrounded ourselves with what we already know and like, would that not be the dullest life ever? No more surprises, no more discoveries, no more learning? Who would want to live like that? If heaven exists, and it consists of people constantly waving palm fronds and singing God’s praises, then God might feel like he was in hell.

There is nothing more disturbing than to live among total adoration. It ruins your thinking, your sense of self, your opinion of others. If everyone around you does nothing but praise you and provide “positive reinforcement” of who you are, you will not learn, you will not develop a sound opinion of yourself and the world. Conversely, receiving nothing but criticism all the time can also be challenging, even damaging, and leave you with nothing but fear – but, hopefully, with a desire to get better and improve. Ideally, both extremes meet in the middle and we all can live in a world of polite criticism that positively reinforces our right to speech, health and life, but seriously pushes us to always become the best possible version of ourselves, embedded in the desire to improve the world and to respect and honor each other. Utopia, somehow. I know, but having a dream is better than knowing only nightmares or indifference.

Backtracking now, we all disagree with some things some people say. But we are all different, which means that what we disagree with, somebody else may not, and they may disagree with the things we approve. If level of disagreement with certain opinions or propositions were a category by which to order society, then no opinion would be free. Who would decide what speech should be permitted? Some like music, others would like to ban it. Some like classical, others death metal. Some like Star Trek, others Star Wars (I, strangely, like both, but I am not normal, thankfully!), tomayto, tomahto…

There are really only two choices here that can claim to any sense of justice. Either everybody shall be allowed to speak, or nobody. All else would be heavily biased. Who should decide who speaks? Me? You? Donald Trump? Joe Biden? Vladimir Putin? Xi Jinping? The Ayatollah? Salman Rushdie? Where will this end? Dystopia, definitely, even if you like Joe Biden (or Donald Trump), would you want that guy telling you what to say, and eventually, to think? We know what Putin and Xi want – but do we want that? They want to silence all of us – as they have done in their own countries. The Ayatollah – just as Popes of the past (any religious leader with great power will let themselves be seduced into using such power, so this is not about Islam, not about Christianity, but about the weakness of humans and the seductions of power and the outrageous and glorious shining light of free speech. What Salman Rushdie is to Ayatollah Khomeini, Giordano Bruno was to Pope Clement VIII. Bruno’s death in 1600 defined the intolerance of the late medieval / early modern time, and would be an icon for the rising movement for the enlightenment.

Allegedly powerful people have always tried to shut people up and have them disappear in some way or another. If we allow the perverse movement against freedom of speech to succeed, and even if it only succeeds against the people we do not like, then we’ll go down in history as those who silenced Bruno and are attempting to silence Rushdie. If you insist, as you should as a human being, that you have the right to your own opinions and to speak them, then you must make a stand, and it needs to be for Salman Rushdie, and ultimately, for absolutely free speech.

For without it, without freedom of speech, we will have no culture, no art, no music, no science, no humanities, nothing approaching the rich panoply of cultures from around the world that we can enjoy, learn from, utilize to gain a deeper understanding of humanity from a cosmopolitan and historically comparative perspective.

Democracy only works with free speech, and dictators always want to ban it. Which side are you on?