I gave two talks this weekend. One was on ‘Turning diversity on its head’ at the sixth anniversary celebration of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain (CEMB), the other on’Offence and censorship’ at an Artangel ‘Party for Freedom’. The two talks overlapped, so here I have stitched them together into a single post. The cartoons are from the wonderful Jesus and Mo.
Almost twenty years ago, in 1994, the Independent newspaper asked me to write an essay on Tom Paine, the eighteenth-century English revolutionary. It was the 200th anniversary of his masterpiece, The Age of Reason, a book of which Paine said that it was a ‘march through Christianity with an axe’. ‘All national institutions of churches’, wrote Paine, ‘whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to be no more than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolise power and profit.’
Few authors have so punctured the pretensions of organised religion or so savaged the claims of divine revelation as Paine. Fewer still have faced such ridicule and vilification for doing so. In England The Age of Reason was suppressed for decades and successive publishers imprisoned for blasphemy. Anyone who distributed, read or discussed the book faced prosecution. Some were arrested for simply displaying the portrait of the author. In America, where hitherto Paine had been feted as a hero for his unwavering support for independence, newspapers denounced him as a ‘lily-livered sinical [sic] rogue’ and ‘a demihuman archbeast’. The Age of Reason, as I observed in my Independent essay, became ‘The Satanic Verses of its day’. And, given that comparison, I thought it reasonable to open the essay with a quote from Salman Rushdie’s novel, satirising the divine origins of the Qur’an.
The Independent thought otherwise. There was consternation in the editorial offices when I filed my piece. Eventually one of the editors phoned me to say that I could not use the quote from The Satanic Verses because it was deemed too offensive. No amount of logic or reasoning could persuade her otherwise. The irony of having been commissioned to write an essay on Tom Paine, the greatest freethinker of his age, and then being banned from quoting from a freely available book, seemed to escape the Independent editors.
Back in 1994, the Independent’s argument still seemed shocking and unusual. Twenty years on, the idea that we should refrain from giving offence to other cultures seems to many common sense. It no longer startles when, in the name of cultural sensitivity, publishers abandon books, theatres savage plays, opera houses to cut productions, art galleries censor shows. ‘I believe in free speech. But…’ may well be a motto of our times.
At the heart of the argument for restrictions on offensive speech is the belief that while free speech may be a good, it must necessarily be less free in a plural society. For diverse societies to function and to be fair, so the argument runs, we need to show respect not just for individuals but also for the cultures and beliefs in which those individuals are embedded and which helps give them a sense of identity and being. This requires that we police public discourse about those cultures and beliefs, both to minimise friction between antagonistic groups and to protect the dignity of those individuals embedded in them. As the sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, that ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ One of the ironies of living in a plural society, it seems, is that the preservation of diversity requires us to leave less room for a diversity of views.
It is an argument that seems to me fundamentally to misunderstand the nature both of diversity and of free speech. When we say that we live in a diverse society, what we mean is that it is a messy world out there, full of clashes and conflict. And that is all for the good, for it is out of such clashes and conflicts that cultural and political engagement emerges. Diversity is important because it allows us to break out of our culture-bound boxes, to expand our horizons, to compare and contrast different values, beliefs and lifestyles, make judgements upon them, and decide which may be better and which may be worse. It is important, in other words, because it allows us to engage in political dialogue and debate that can held create a more universal language of citizenship.
But the very thing that is valuable about diversity – the cultural and ideological clashes that it brings about – is precisely what many people fear. And that fear takes two forms. On the one hand you have the little Englander sentiment: immigration is undermining the national fabric, eroding our sense of British or Englishness, turning our cities into little Lahores or mini-Kingstons. And on the other you have the multicultural argument: that diversity is good, but it has to be policed to minimise the clashes and conflicts and frictions that diversity brings in its wake. And so we have to restrain speech, and police the giving of offence.
I take the opposite view. It is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech. In a mythical homogenous society in which everyone thought in exactly the same way then the giving of offence would be nothing more than gratuitous. But in the real world where societies are plural, then it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. Almost by definition such clashes express what it is to live in a diverse society. And so they should be openly resolved than suppressed in the name of ‘respect’ or ‘tolerance’.
But more than this: the giving of offence is not just inevitable, it is also important. Any kind of social change or social progress means offending some deeply held sensibilities. Or to put it another way: ‘You can’t say that!’ is all too often the response of those in power to having their power challenged. To accept that certain things cannot be said is to accept that certain forms of power cannot be challenged.
The notion of giving offence suggests that certain beliefs are so important or valuable to certain people that they should be put beyond the possibility of being insulted, or caricatured or even questioned. The importance of the principle of free speech is precisely that it provides a permanent challenge to the idea that some questions are beyond contention, and hence acts as a permanent challenge to authority. This is why free speech is essential not simply to the practice of democracy, but also to the aspirations of those groups who may have been failed by the formal democratic processes; to those whose voices may have been silenced by racism, for instance. The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. The right to ‘subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to confront those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.
Of course, most critics who argue for restraint on the matter of offensiveness would have no problem with political or social or cultural criticism. What is unacceptable, they would argue, is when such criticism crosses the line and becomes abuse or obscenity. There is all the difference, as the philosopher Shabir Akhtar put it at the height of the controversy over The Satanic Verses, between ‘sound historical criticism’ and ‘scurrilously imaginative writing’. Akhtar, who became a spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques in the wake of the infamous book-burning demonstration in January 1989, suggested that he real debate was not about ‘freedom of speech versus censorship’ but about ‘legitimate criticism versus obscenity and slander’.
Exactly the same point has been made by every opponent of offensive talk. By the Sikh protestors, for instance, who in 2004 shut down Behzti, a play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, which the Birmingham Rep pulled after demonstrations by Sikh activists. Or by the Christian protestors who would have liked to have prevented the broadcasting of Jerry Springer: The Opera.
But the question arises: who makes that judgment call? Who decides what is legitimate criticism and what is obscenity and slander? And the answer one gives depends on how one views the nature and value of diversity.
To understand this, we have to take a slight detour and look at what is meant by diversity and multiculturalism. Clarity is often difficult because multiculturalism has come to possess two meanings that are all too rarely distinguished. The first is the lived experience of diversity. The second is multiculturalism as a political process, the aim of which is to manage that diversity.
The experience of living in a society that is less insular, more vibrant and more cosmopolitan is something to welcome and celebrate. It is a case for cultural diversity, mass immigration, open borders and open minds. As a political process, however, multiculturalism means something very different. It requires the public recognition and affirmation of cultural differences. It insists that social justice requires not just that individuals are treated as political equals, but also that their cultural beliefs are treated as valid. And it describes a set of policies, the aim of which is to manage and institutionalize diversity by putting people into ethnic and cultural boxes, defining individual needs and rights by virtue of the boxes into which people are put, and using those boxes to shape public policy. It is a case, not for open borders and minds, but for the policing of borders, whether physical, cultural or imaginative.
The conflation of lived experience and political policy has proved highly invidious. On the one hand, it has allowed many on the right – and not just on the right – to blame mass immigration for the failures of social policy and to turn minorities into the problem. On the other hand, it has forced many traditional liberals and radicals to abandon classical notions of liberty, such as an attachment to free speech, in the name of defending diversity.
The starting point of multicultural policy is the acceptance of societies as diverse. Yet, on the multicultural map, that diversity seems magically to vanish at the edges of minority communities. Multiculturalists tend to treat minority communities as if each was a distinct, singular, homogeneous, authentic whole, each composed of people all speaking with a single voice, each defined primarily by a singular view of culture and faith. In so doing, multiculturalists all too often ignore conflicts within those communities. And they take the most conservative, reactionary figures as the authentic voices of those communities, precisely because they are reactionary and therefore must be authentic.
The claim that The Satanic Verses is offensive to Muslims, or Bezhti to Sikhs, or Jerry Springer to Christians, suggests that there is a Muslim community, and a Sikh community and a Christian community, all of whose members are offended by the work in question and whose ostensible leaders are the most suitable judges of what is and is not suitable for that community. But what is often called offence to a community is more often than not a dialogue or debate within that community. That is why so many of the flashpoints over offensiveness have been over works produced by minority artists – not just Salman Rushdie or Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, but Hanif Kuresihi, Monica Ali, Sooreh Hera, Taslima Nasrin, MF Hussain, and so on.
Shabir Akhtar no more spoke for Muslims than Salman Rushdie did. Both represented different strands of opinion. So did Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and the protestors outside the Brimigham Rep outraged by her play Bezhti. But Shabir Akhtar has come to be seen as an authentic Muslim, and the anti-Bezhti protestors as proper Sikhs, while Salman Rushdie and Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti are regarded as too Westernized, secular or progressive to be truly of their community. To be a proper Muslim, in other words, is to be offended by The Satanic Verses, to be a proper Sikh is to be offended by Bezhti. The argument that offensive talk should be restrained is, then, both rooted in a stereotype of what it is to be an authentic Muslim or a Sikh and helps reinforce that stereotype. And it ensures that only one side of the conversation gets heard.
Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, which published the Danish cartoons, has observed how the idea of tolerance has in recent years been turned on its head. Tolerance used to mean the willingness ‘to be exposed to things you don’t like’, and ‘to live with what you find distasteful, what you abhor’ Today, tolerance is ‘more about the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may not care to hear’. The meaning of diversity has transformed in much the same way. Where once it used to mean the creation of a space for dissent and disagreement, now it describes a space where dissent and disagreement are expunged in the name of respect and tolerance, where in Tariq Modood’s words, people have ‘mutually to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism’.
To defend the right to give offence, in other words, is not merely to defend free speech. It is also to defend diversity in its true sense. If we want the pleasures of pluralism, we have to accept the pain of being offended.