Last month author Salman Rushdie declared at the Edinburgh International Book Festival that we live in a “culture of offendedness” where we take opposing views to our own personally. Moreso than probably any public intellectual he is familiar with such danger. His publication of The Satanic Verses in 1988 was so controversial amongst Islamic communities that the Iranian government issued a fatwa, his death warrant. Imagine fearing for your life every day for a decade (it wasn’t lifted until 1998), threatened by a government on the other side of the world, all because you wrote a book they didn’t like. A book you didn’t exactly force them to read… Rushdie has argued that no book has the power to offend for this very reason, a view myself and Oscar Wilde agree upon: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
I want to talk more generally about opinions and argue the case that no opinion however ‘offensive’ should be supressed. We can all appreciate what Rushdie means by a “culture of offendedness”. Its truth is illustrated by the mere familiarity of sentences that begin: “I am sorry if this offends you but…” or its twinned rebuttal: “actually, I find that to be offensive”. The former remark is flawed in that it only invites the latter response. And the latter reply is worthless, stated often with an air of arrogance. It is nothing more than a self-pitying demand for an apology that the speaker is not entitled to, and an indication of their incapability to retaliate with any reason. By all means tell me if I have offended you – but tell me why – and don’t expect me to withdraw my opinion thereafter.
Free speech is not just the right to express your own opinion – it is the right to listen to someone else’s. To borrow the words from Christopher Hitchens, “if you repress other people’s opinions you become a prisoner of your own”. On this premise no opinion should be censored for being ‘offensive’ because the notion attacks not just the speaker’s right to speak, but the victim’s right to listen. Free speech grants a right to offend and a right to be offended. Any appeal for censorship should be scrutinised with the simple argument that no one is qualified to play the role of the censor. Don’t tell me what I should be offended by. Let me make my own mind up.
You might be thinking that my defence of free speech is over-simplified. It all sounds digestible enough but what about evils like sexism or fascism – will you defend the right to express those?
Yes. The point to highlight is that censorship is not a method of reformation; it is a method of suppression. If you forbid a sexist from saying sexist things you do not stop them being a sexist. You are only hiding the fact there are sexists (misogynists and misandrists) among us, painting the false picture that society is a more pleasant and safer place than it really is – a dangerous mistake. If feminism tried to censor sexist language it would in many ways be shooting itself in the foot. It is far more effective to allow sexists to express themselves because in causing offense they are reaffirming and clarifying the case for equality. The same works with politics. A fascist candidate should be allowed to promote their views and stand for an election (though they have no right to an audience) because in doing so they would only invoke valid criticism that might not have been voiced otherwise. Furthermore, to restrict the expression of ideas like sexism or fascism would also make us more sensitive to them: it is better that we confront such evils out in the open.