Last week, Brendan Eich, CEO of Mozilla Corporation, the technology company that, among other things, is responsible for the Firefox browser, resigned after it was revealed that in 2008 he had given a $1000 donation to Proposition 8, the Californian campaign against gay marriage. Mozilla decided that his views were incompatible with its core values of ‘diversity and inclusiveness’. This week Brandeis University in America withdrew its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the campaigner against female genital mutilation and a fierce critic of Islam, after outrage from critics who described her as an ‘Islamophobe’. ‘We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values’, the university explained.
Welcome to the world where only people with bland, mainstream, uncontroversial views are deemed acceptable for public posts or academic honours. And in which ‘Inconsistent with our core values’ has become a new euphemism for ‘we’re caving in under pressure’.
Many people have applauded both Eich’s resignation and Brandeis’ snub to Hirsi Ali. The resignation of Eich, they insist, was a matter not of censorship but of good business practice. Eich had to resign, wrote James Ball, the Guardian‘s special projects editor in the USA, because he no longer possessed ‘the ability to build and maintain a diverse coalition of supporters is absolutely integral to Mozilla’s prospects’. Brandeis University, many insist, should never have awarded Hirsi Ali a degree in the first place because the award was, in the words of the university’s Muslim Student Association ‘a personal attack on Brandeis’ Muslim students’. In fact what the two cases reveal is how censorship has become such an automatic, almost reflexive response to ‘unacceptable’ ideas that it is barely seen as such.
Consider the claim that Brendan Eich’s resignation was not an issue of free speech. And perform a thought experiment. Imagine that we were talking not about the CEO of a tech company who holds views that many find odious but an academic author who has written a book that many find offensive. And suppose her publisher decides to pulp her book, because not to give in to the campaign against the book would be bad for its business. How should we respond? Should we simply say, ‘The publisher pulped the book for business reasons, so this is not a matter of free speech’?
Or imagine that a British Muslim parliamentary candidate tweets a cartoon about the Prophet Mohammed to illustrate the fact that, as a Mulism, he finds nothing offensive about it. And suppose that many people take offence at his action and launch an international campaign to have him deselected. Should we just say, ‘His party has to take a decision on his candidacy on political grounds; it is not a matter of free speech’?
We don’t, of course, have to perform thought experiments. These are both real cases. Earlier this year, Penguin India agreed to withdraw all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History after Hindu hardliners objected to it. And Muslim hardliners tried to force the Liberal Democrats to deselect Maajid Nawaz as a prospective candidate after he tweeted a Jesus and Mo cartoon.
Penguin was driven by a desire not to promote censorship but to protect its commercial interests. Campaigners against Nawaz insisted that they were not attempting to restrict free speech but pushing the Liberal Democrats to take a political decision about the kind of candidate it should field. Yet few would deny that at the heart of both cases was the issue of free speech. Censorship is not simply a matter of the state imposing restrictive laws or of the authorities silencing writers. It is also about the culture of discussion and debate, about the willingness to listen, engage and allow divergent views and beliefs to exist. As Jon Lovett, former speechwriter to Barack Obama, put it recently in an essay about free speech in America:
‘The right to free speech may begin and end with the First Amendment, but there is a vast middle where our freedom of speech is protected by us—by our capacity to listen and accept that people disagree, often strongly, that there are fools… that there are people who believe stupid, irrational, hateful things about other people and it’s okay to let those words in our ears sometimes without rolling out the guillotines.’
The trouble is, ‘protecting the vast middle’ is precisely what we are not doing. On the contrary, whether in America, Europe or India, we have been busy creating what Lovett has aptly called ‘a Culture of Shut Up’. It is a culture of ‘you can’t say that’, in which the starting point of any debate is the avoidance of giving offence, a culture of conformity in which only certain views are deemed legitimate or acceptable in polite society.
In announcing Brendan Eich’s resignation, Mozilla insisted, without a hint of irony, that ‘Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness… Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public’. Nothing could better illustrate the unreflective character of contemporary censorship than the fact that Mozilla could, with a straight face, portray the removal of Eich as a means of promoting ‘diversity and inclusiveness’, of maintaining a ‘culture of openness’, and of ‘encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public’. Diversity has come to mean diversity for my views, inclusiveness to mean inclusive of non-dissenting beliefs, openness to mean openness to ideas that I already accept.
In this spirit, Christian Rudder, the founder and president of OKCupid, the online dating agency that led the campaign against Eich, insisted in the New York Times that Eich had to go because ‘Opposing gay marriage is selfish and wrong’. I am a supporter of the campaign for same sex marriage. I have been highly critical of those who have opposed it. But I certainly do not wish to create a society in which the only acceptable views for public figures are ones that I like, where no one can hold, even in private, views that some may find objectionable, and where diversity means the filtering out of unacceptable views.
Much the same can be said about the debate over Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s withdrawn award. Hirsi Ali is a hugely controversial figure. Born in Somalia she grew up in Holland and became a fierce critic of Islam which she has described as a ‘destructive, nihilistic cult of death’. She wrote the screenplay for the 2004 anti-Islamic film ‘Submission’, whose director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on an Amsterdam street by a radical Islamist, shortly after the film’s release. She now lives in America and is affiliated to the rightwing American Enterprise Institute.
I know Hirsi Ali and I admire her courage. I also trenchantly disagree with many of her views. She has, for instance, opposed Muslim immigration to Europe, supported the Swiss ban on the building of minarets and declared that ‘we are at war with Islam’. Such views I find deeply objectionable. But equally objectionable is the insistence that her anti-Islamic and pro-Israel views are of themselves reasons to deny her an academic award.
The campaign against Hirsi Ali for her anti-Islamic and pro-Israeli views ironically echoes campaigns against academic awards or posts to those seen as supportive of Islamism or critical of Israel. In 2012, Frankfurt awarded the prestigious Adorno Prize to American feminist and academic Judith Butler. Jewish and pro-Israeli groups launched a furious campaign to strip her of the award because her criticisms of Israel and support for sanctions. The German Jewish Council condemned Butler’s ‘moral depravity’ and lambasted as ‘shocking’ Frankfurt’s decision to honour her. Similarly, many opposed the appointment in 2004 of Tariq Ramadan as professor of religion at Notre Dame University in America because of his Islamist views. Ramadan was, in the end, unable to take up his post because the US State Department refused him a visa. Two years earlier Harvard University had cancelled a lecture by academic and poet Tom Paulin after protests about his anti-Israeli views (the university later rescinded the cancellation). It is one thing to question whether Butler or Ramadan or Paulin or Hirsi Ali are academically fit for a particular honour or post. It is quite another to suggest that their political views should bar them. As Judith Butler herself has rightly observed:
Such charges seek to demonize the person who is articulating a critical point of view and so disqualify the viewpoint in advance. It is a silencing tactic: this person is unspeakable, and whatever they speak is to be dismissed in advance or twisted in such a way that it negates the validity of the act of speech. The charge refuses to consider the view, debate its validity, consider its forms of evidence, and derive a sound conclusion on the basis of listening to reason. The charge is not only an attack on persons who hold views that some find objectionable, but it is an attack on reasonable exchange, on the very possibility of listening and speaking in a context where one might actually consider what another has to say.
The irony is that many of those welcoming Brandeis’ snub to Hirsi Ali were outraged at the campaigns against Butler, Ramadan and Paulin. Many of those who campaigned against Butler, Ramadan and Paulin are outraged at Brandeis’ treatment of Hirsi Ali. For both sides, those who disagree with your political stance must be ostracized. Welcome to the Culture of Shut Up.
There is, of course, a major objection to my argument against shutting people up. Many ideas are odious and obnoxious and should be shunned. Most of us would agree that the world would be a better place without racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia or hatred of Muslims. I would not want such ideas banned by the state. But I have long campaigned against all these hatreds. I would want through campaigning and social pressure to create a society in which fewer and fewer people are racist or homophobic, or hostile to Jews or to Muslims. Isn’t this an argument for shutting out certain ideas?
The trouble is, whether certain ideas are odious or unacceptable is itself usually a matter for debate. Take the two cases here. Many people do not see Brendan Eich’s opposition to same-sex marriage as homophobic or Hirsi Ali’s opposition to Islam as Islamophobic. Even if you think they are homophobic or Islamophobic, there is no value in simply shouting ‘Oh but they are’ and proscribing such views. That makes no more sense than Hindus demanding that Wendy Doniger’s book be banned because it supposedly disparages Hinduism, or Islamists demanding that Maajid Nawaz be disciplined for supposedly offending Muslims.
There is a difference between creating a society in which we have genuinely reduced or removed certain forms of hatreds and demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to other people’s expectations of what is acceptable. To demand that something is unsayable is not to make it unsaid, still less unthought. It is merely to create a world in which social conversation becomes greyer and more timid, in which people are less willing to say anything distinctive or outrageous, in which in Jon Lovett’s words, ‘fewer and fewer people talk more and more about less and less’. The Culture of Shut Up fashions not a less hateful world but a more conformist one. And there is chasm between the act of conforming and that of transforming.
The cartoon is from Jesus and Mo.