On Freedom of Speech

The news that Salman Rushdie is recovering and ‘joking’ is good, though his family are also saying his injuries are ‘life changing’. His agent, Andrew Wylie, said his liver had been damaged and that he was likely to lose an eye. We are lucky that Rushdie is an icon of free speech and not a martyr of it.

The author Margaret Atwood has commented (If we don’t defend free speech, we live in tyranny) about the wider implications for democracy of the attack: “Yet again “that sort of thing never happens here” has been proven false: in our present world, anything can happen anywhere. American democracy is under threat as never before: the attempted assassination of a writer is just one more symptom.”

Ever since the Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa — encouraging anyone to murder him — Rushdie has been under threat and almost constant fear of attack. Only very recently did he say that he felt his life was ‘normal again’.

This is not an attack on ‘western values’ whatever they may be, but it is an attack on democracy and critical thinking.

As Suhayl Saadi has written: “One’s true stance on freedom of expression is demonstrated not by the extent of one’s ferocity in defending the freedom of expression of those with whom one agrees (anyone can do that!), but by one’s principled defence of freedom of expression by those with whom one vehemently disagrees.”

With that simple truth you’d have to completely not just defend Rushdie’s right to write what he likes (a la Biko) but Jerry Sadowitz’s right to say what he likes on a comedy stage too. It’s a long way down from Midnight’s Children to wagging your willy I know, but the thing about freedom of speech is not just the defence of ideas you disagree with but also things that are, well, just a bit shit.

The idea that what the Scotsman and BBC Scotland will inevitably call a stooshie (cringe) was manufactured by Sadowitz (to sell his tour) or by The Pleasance (to adopt some kind of high ground and attract new audiences) seems at best unlikely. A not-very-funny comic tells deliberately offensive material and venue panics after complaints. The End. The festival thrives on this sort of controversy but it’s of little actual consequence and masks the banality of the whole tired bougie phenomena, it’s a sort of cultural desert that coughs-up Simply Red at the Summer Sessions as it slowly destroys its host.

Wishing Salman Rushdie as best a recovery he can make and solidarity to all writers and artists and performers under attack.

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