Rushdie on Free Speech and Religion

Rushdie on Free Speech and Religion April 13, 2015

Salman Rushdie has an op-ed column in the Los Angeles Times objecting to a new proposed law in the UK that would criminalize “incitement to religious hatred.” This de facto blasphemy law is appalling and Rushdie, as usual, eloquently explains why.

I recently returned from a trip to Britain, where I discovered, to my consternation, that the government is proposing a law to ban what it is calling “incitement to religious hatred.” This measure, much beloved by liberals, is apparently designed to protect people “targeted” because of their religious beliefs.

But I see nothing to applaud. To me it is merely further evidence that in Britain, just as in the United States, we may need to fight the battle for the Enlightenment all over again.

That battle, you may remember, was about the church’s desire to place limits on thought. Diderot’s novel “La Religieuse,” with its portrayal of nuns and their behavior, was deliberately blasphemous: It challenged religious authority, with its indexes and inquisitions, on what was possible to say. Most of our contemporary ideas about freedom of speech and imagination come from the Enlightenment.

But although we may have thought the battle long since won, if we aren’t careful, it is about to be “un-won.”…

The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted, or in which they have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted, is absurd.

In the end, a fundamental decision needs to be made: Do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies, people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.)

At Cambridge I was taught a laudable method of argument: You never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: People must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

I might quibble with the idea that you should never be rude to the person making an argument — some people deserve rudeness, in spades — I could not agree with him more about the terrible idea of protecting ideas from criticism by protecting those who hold them from being offended. When someone says “you have to respect my religion” (or political views, or anti-vaccination ideas, etc), I don’t even know what the hell that means. All it seems to mean is “you can’t tell me I’m wrong.” My response: The fuck I can’t.


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