Our modern crusaders against offensive speech have no loyalty to our free speech guarantees, nor a coherent position on censorship and civil rights.
The freedoms of others should be respected, including the freedom to offend. To willfully and unjustly encroach upon the freedoms of another is to forgo one’s own.
Fourth Tenet of The Satanic Temple
Less than a week after literary giant Salman Rushdie was attacked and repeatedly stabbed on stage in upstate New York, sales of his offending work, The Satanic Verses, which had earned the author a fatwa over 30 years ago, have sky-rocketed, while defenders of free speech have taken to writing impassioned pleas in defense of a value that they see as under threat now more than ever.
Rushdie himself had suggested, in 2021, that our current culture is too hostile to free speech for The Satanic Verses to be accepted for publication. “The idea that being offended is a valid critique has gained a lot of traction,” he wrote.
Writing for The Atlantic, author Graeme Wood said:
We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding. The novelist Hanif Kureishi has said that ‘nobody would have the balls’ to write The Satanic Verses today. More precisely, nobody would publish it, because sensitivity readers would notice the theological delicacy of the book’s title and plot. The ayatollahs have trained them well, and social-media disasters of recent years have reinforced the lesson: Don’t publish books that get you criticized, either by semiliterate fanatics on the other side of the world or by semiliterate fanatics on this one.”
Author Margaret Atwood, writing for The Guardian, lamented our contemporary diminished respect for free speech following Rushdie’s stabbing, observing that what was “[o]nce a yawn-making liberal platitude, [free speech] has now become a hot-button issue, since the extreme right has attempted to kidnap it in the service of libel, lies and hatred, and the extreme left has tried to toss it out the window in the service of its version of earthly perfection.”
In light of this commentary and countless others, The New York Times ran a piece with a headline proclaiming (preemptively and optimistically, in my opinion) that “The Stabbing of Salman Rushdie Renews Free Speech Debates.” NPR later echoed the claim of fresh debate in an article titled “Since 1989, threats to Salman Rushdie have sparked support and debate on free speech.”
But while defenders of free speech are taking this opportunity to desperately attempt to renew some type of respect for free expression, I have seen very little debate from the other side, very little commentary to be seen so far, this time around, blaming the author for the vitriol directed towards him. While some may see this as a positive development indicating a general consensus in favor of a principled stand for the preservation of free speech, I believe that the silence of censorship’s contemporary champions is more indicative of intellectual cowardice than a pro-democratic change of heart.
Back in 1989, when the fatwa against Rushdie was ordered by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, former president Jimmy Carter wrote for The New York Times, opining that “[w]hile Rushdie’s First Amendment freedoms are important, we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.”
At least Carter deemed First Amendment freedoms “important,” but many questions were left unanswered in his criticisms. Was he claiming that the book was overvalued because of the controversy surrounding it, or was he suggesting that a work of literary merit should be ignored because it is “offensive”? Did it matter that Rushdie was born into a Kashmiri Muslim family and may have been critical of viewpoints that were imposed upon him at an early age and remain a part of his inherited universal mythological framework, even as a nonbeliever? Are apostates from major world religions who grow up imbedded in those religious communities to be seen as merely joining a larger majority of non-adherents to a particular faith when they renounce those beliefs, or are apostates from those religions to be viewed as a minority within a minority, and deserving of greater protections?
Others similarly lamented the fame of Rushdie’s work at the time of the fatwa and since, but the commentary decrying The Satanic Verses was often the same as that expressed by Carter: the First Amendment is still vital to democracy, but Rushdie should not have done what he did, and we should not celebrate him for it.
As pointless and misguided as I may feel such proclamations are, our modern crusaders against offensive speech seem to have no such loyalty to the First Amendment, and they do even less to attempt a coherent position on censorship and civil rights. Thus, faced with the brutal stabbing of a respected author who offended what is in the United States (and so likely believed to be everywhere in their provincial minds) a minority religious group, it seems that the crusaders against offensive speech largely choose to hold their silence.
Unlike Carter, today’s critics of offensive speech concede little to no respect for First Amendment protections, which are often dismissed as “free speech absolutism.” Or if not “absolute,” then the acknowledgment that free speech has never actually been absolute, and that there are prohibitions against death threats, libel, etc., is often senselessly used to advance a case that censorship is merely a pre-existing norm that deserves more expansive elaboration to mitigate possible “offense.”
Today’s anti-free speech moral crusaders do not take on difficult challenges. They ignore them. Instead of attempting to create a position that would preserve artistic works like Rushdie’s and the ability to speak truth to power while delineating the borders beyond which Free Speech is deemed harmful, the “debate” is reduced to extremist platitudes expressed on social media that entirely ignore any potential for abuse and a “chilling effect” that the introduction of new censorship standards could impose. Today’s anti-free speech movement chooses only those cases that might support their cause, discarding the rest, or pretending that they are irrelevant. Outrage in the moment, and directed toward specific events, seems to have completely overtaken any attempts in public discourse to design workable standards within a principled and neutral legal framework.
Most distressingly, the mindless assault upon free speech is happening at a time when the theocratic right-wing in the United States is actively trying to impose new standards of censorship on literature and in public schools. The disingenuous simultaneous proclamations of the witch-hunting would-be book burners insisting that they are the defenders of free speech are somehow taken at face value by online armchair activists who then thoughtlessly accept that free speech is a harmful right-wing ideal that must be destroyed. Thus, we have recently seen the bizarre dark comedy of Trump-supporting Turning Point USA president and founder Charlie Kirk penning an intellectually incoherent op-ed for Newsweek, declaring, “[t]he First Amendment has long been a bedrock principle of my worldview… I support free speech, and free religious exercise, both in spirit and in the letter of the law. I’ve spent years railing against leftist censorship in all areas of society, especially on college campuses and social media,” but then unironically went on to explain that The Satanic Temple’s first annual convention in 2021, “SatanCon,” was “so objectionable—even downright evil—that [it didn’t] merit society’s protection,” and should have been prohibited.
Similarly, Arizona GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, who also fashions herself a free speech supporter, suggested publicly that local officials should have intervened and prevented a private gathering of The Satanic Temple.
Despite all of this, and despite the fact that The Satanic Temple has seldom held an event that militant Christians have not deemed to be an intentional insult against them, petitioning whomever they think they may persuade that we should be denied any ability to congregate publicly or privately, I still receive messages from would-be members who express discomfort with The Satanic Temple’s fourth fundamental tenet upholding the “freedom to offend.” Despite being a leader in a minority religious organization that has been criminally attacked for its beliefs, and despite the fact that I am, myself, the regular recipient of death threats and the topic of conspiracy theories, I find myself admonished that I simply can not understand the dangers of free speech in the modern world.
Of course, the complaints that I have received from those who express concern regarding the dangers of free speech have never bothered to answer questions regarding the dangers of censorship. Does not censorship often have the unintended consequence of paradoxically elevating an idea’s prestige as “dangerous” and forbidden? And again, determining who are the marginalized, as opposed to those who are worthy of criticism (ie apostates versus their former religious identity) is not always clear. Catholics protesting against The Satanic Temple insist that they are being marginalized by our activities which represent the larger, non-Catholic world. The Satanic Temple views itself as a minority religious group that utilizes the blasphemous in the service of its individual members’ personal journeys toward liberation from oppressive superstitions. Who do we entrust with the power to make such determinations?
Far from renewing debate regarding free speech, the overall lack of any sophisticated dialogue centered upon free speech following Salman Rushdie’s recent stabbing indicates a widespread failure to engage in honest debate at all. Too much has been yielded to our polarized extremes for whom workable democratic policies are a distant concern, if they are considered at all.
Free speech is a fundamental pillar of democracy. If we do not come to collectively rediscover its vital role as a civil right, I fear that the United States will see the introduction of anti-blasphemy laws during the next Republican administration.
If the irony of this were to be carried full circle, 20 years’ time would find me in a secular Iran writing satirical literature about the American Christian Nationalist theocracy, only to find myself rebuked by Iranian undergraduates over my lack of sensitivity.