Salman Rushdie has pulled out of a literary festival in India. Threats of violence did the trick.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Scots writer Alan Massie mourns that decision and the wider erosion of free speech seen over recent years:
We have become timid and mealy-mouthed. Giving offence has become a criminal act. Expressions which may be construed as racist or sectarian lead to prosecution in the courts. The Scottish Parliament, for instance, has just passed a law making the singing of songs that football fans have chanted for generations a criminal offence.
Massie is right, but it’s worth reading carefully what he goes on to say:
Now it is perfectly true that there is always a balance to be struck between entitlement to speak your mind and the good manners which may require you to keep silent. We all recognise this, and most of us also accept that the changed composition of our society imposes certain restrictions; these are, as I say, simply a matter of good manners.
Nevertheless the right to express opinion freely is fundamental in a liberal society, and must be defended. We may detest certain opinions, but we should resist attempts to suppress them.
Shabbir Akhtar, a Muslim philosopher and spokesman for the Bradford Council of Mosques… has called for writers to exercise “self-censorship” which is, he says, “a meaningful demand in a world of varied and passionately held conviction. What Rushdie publishes about Islam is not just his business. It is everyone’s – not least every Muslim’s – business…”
One may, if reluctantly, respect his call for self-censorship, by which I think he means “self-restraint”, and even accept his conclusion…
The point about good manners is fair enough, but the call for writers to exercise self-censorship of the type that Mr. Massie then seems, however reluctantly, to endorse goes more than a few steps too far.
When writers feel that they have to start censoring themselves, censorship by the state is generally not so far behind. Unless, of course, it has already arrived.