Yet many in the West were quick to turn the attack on Rushdie by a New Jersey Hezbollah groupie into “food for highly politicized controversies,” as the New York Times put it. The unspeakable violence against Rushdie has become another “flashpoint in the heated 21st century debate over free speech, liberal values and ‘cancel culture'”.
Thus, the Financial Times editorializes that freedom of expression “must be defended even more vehemently in the wake of the Rushdie attack”. Moreover, “freedom of expression in a liberal society must include the prerogative to say upsetting or offensive things”.
Few will dispute this ancient saw of liberalism. Yet we must also consider the complex new fact that liberal society is endangered by many of those who vehemently defend free speech and the prerogative to say offensive things. The same week Rushdie was attacked, Alex Jones, the prodigiously wealthy talk show host and founder of Free Speech Systems LLC, was ordered by a court to pay $45 million to bereaved parents deeply distressed by his lie broadcast repeatedly that the 2012 massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School never happened.
Jones is just one of many entrepreneurs around the world who have cold-bloodedly monetized the right to offend – and thus helped poison politics and society on several continents. They thrive because liberal society’s appetite for people who say offensive things has never been greater. Certainly, their omnipresence and their success confirm that there has never been, for better or for worse, so much freedom of expression, especially deliberately offensive speech.
Today, anyone with a smartphone is a potential broadcaster, political analyst, historian, literary critic and conspiracy theorist on a range of digital platforms. Bizarrely, however, some of the mainstream Western intelligentsia insist that, as the much-discussed 2020 Harper Letter put it, “the free expression of information and ideas is becoming more restricted every day.”
This unproven and unprovable notion is now back in circulation after the Rushdie attack. Thus, one sentence after lamenting the macabre murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government, the Financial Times invokes Harper’s Letter, stating that “less brutal, but perhaps more insidious, has been the effect of the ‘cancel culture’ on freedom of speech.”
Western signatories to the Harper Letter may have been stung at times in their Twitter skirmishes. But the virtual lynching mobs, while more insidious than Saudi morons wielding bone saws, failed to silence any of them. In fact, some thinkers who are regularly “canceled” on social media enjoy flourishing careers; they confirm how easy it is today to secure a high income and a reputation in the West by claiming just victimization.
In the absence of concrete evidence of the widespread stifling of free speech, culture warriors have become purveyors of chilling speculation. In its report on the “heated debate” over free speech last week, The New York Times quotes a Twitter commenter as saying that “sensitive readers” at publishers today would hamper the publication of “The Satanic Verses”.
It might have been useful to ask Rushdie’s editors about this. Such conjecture could also have been counterbalanced by noting that much of what could not be published for centuries due to rampant racism, misogyny and homophobia is finally coming to print. .
The dominant beliefs of a society determine what can be published there at any given time. These beliefs, policed by a political and cultural establishment, are inevitably challenged when people previously excluded from the public sphere enter it with new media technologies. The outcome of such struggles for narrative authority is always ambiguous: more freedom of expression about some things and less about others.
The question of “who can say what” cannot be separated from ongoing political struggles for power and from demographic and technological changes. This is why the debate on freedom of expression is constantly agitated and can never be resolved to the satisfaction of all debaters.
Members of an insecure cultural establishment in the West have grown accustomed to fiercely imagining a golden age where speech would be truly free, unpunished by “cancellation culture.” An aging commentator is particularly inclined to see civilizational decay in his own loss of vigor and influence.
Yet the fear of slowly becoming useless is not as terrible a fate as the murder, torture and rape suffered by writers and journalists in Asia, Africa and Latin America, or the frighteningly real violence inflicted on Rushdie. It is more imperative than ever to ignore the narcissistic decline of a long-privileged Western minority and to correctly identify the real, resourceful and formidable persecutors of art and thought in the world.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
• Roots of Rushdie attack lie in India, not Iran: Mihir Sharma
• Rushdie attack shows harsh reality of Iranian soft power: Bobby Ghosh
• Can China really prosper without freedom? Maybe not: Ian Buruma
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author, most recently, of “Run and Hide”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion