Walking the Tightrope
I could imagine the reactions of many of my friends -- many of you who read this magazine, I believe. Applause for Eugene England's spirited defense of alternate LDS magazines; a slow burn as Elder Pace warned against criticism of the Church by Church members; a certain wariness throughout Elder Oak's talk; instant solidarity with Ed Firmage in his victimization by the pinheads of Mormondom.
Through it all, I imagine many LDS intellectuals feeling that the Church hierarchy was overreacting or, worse, that it was becoming repressive and dictatorial toward legitimate free expression. Feeling, in other words, that the Church hierarchy was, on its own initiative, clamping down on all non-official voices within the Church.
There is another way of looking at this, however. A truer way. Those among us who feel injured or oppressed by the hierarchy's policies and attitudes must remember that the finger of blame points both ways.
Perhaps the easiest and clearest way to understand our own situation is to look at what happened in the cultural and religious community of Islam.
Good Guys and Bad Guys
I watched with a mixture of gratification and embarrassment as every writer’s organization in America expressed its solidarity with Salman Rushdie, the man whose book, Satanic Verses, led to the Ayatollah Khomeini pronouncing a death sentence upon him.
I was gratified because I also am afraid whenever words are answered by violence; we who live by words are always vulnerable to those who have the power of the sword.
I was embarrassed, however, because in the process of defending the freedom of the press, most failed to notice that Rushdie was an unworthy champion -- that defending Rushdie's freedom of the press should have been just as unpleasant to people of good will as defending, say, Larry Flynt's freedom to publish pornography.
Just because Khomeini behaved in a very bad way toward Rushdie did not make Rushdie one of the good guys. Quite the contrary. Rushdie is a bad guy in this story, and we defend him only because of the inappropriateness of the Ayatollah's response, not because what Rushdie did was good or even innocuous.
Assault on Faith
Satanic Verses is a despicable book that could not have been written by a person who wished to behave decently and responsibly. The book is clearly aimed at Muslim readers; it is hard to imagine a non-Muslim reading it with anything more than mild curiosity. Yet Rushdie, as a lapsed Muslim, also knew that the Muslim audience would be outraged by it. He could only have written it as a calculated offense against his own community.
The most dangerous aspect of the literary world's knee-jerk defense of Satanic Verses was the widespread assumption that because the book was fiction, it was absurd for anyone to be so angry at it. Especially galling was this frequent bit of illogic: "How dare these people get upset about Satanic Verses when they haven't even read it!" This makes as much sense as saying, "How dare these people get upset about drunk drivers when they've never been run over by one."
Storytelling does not operate in a vacuum. It fulfills a vital human need -- that's why there's no human society without it and precious little human contact that does not take the form of storytelling. We can hardly get through the day without many stories of many kinds. And fiction is one of the most powerful kinds. Unlike "true" stories (history, science, news, gossip), fiction is not subject to immediate revision upon discovery of a new fact. The author of a fictional tale has absolute authority, within the world of the story, over the most fundamental area of human thought: causality, why things happen.