“If everybody minded their own business,” the Duchess said in a hoarse growl, “the world would go round a deal faster than it does.”
— Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Cry insult and let loose the enemies of freedom.
Late last week, following days of media clamor, ABC Family canceled a pilot for Alice in Arabia. The show was to have centered upon a young American woman as she attempted to escape from family kidnappers in Saudi Arabia.
To be sure, ABC’s critics were vociferous, both in volume and in number. But they should never have been able to succeed.
At a basic level, consider the hyperventilating banality that defined the censorship crew’s arguments. BuzzFeed’s Ayesha Siddiqi scoffed at the comparison of Saudi Arabia to Wonderland. In the Guardian, Raya Jalabi declared that “the very premise of the pilot is deeply problematic — not least because it carries the very real potential for perpetuating negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) echoed this sentiment, claiming that Alice in Arabia might lead to “things like bullying.” Coincidentally, CAIR receives quite a lot of money from Riyadh.
In an ironic twist of prejudice, Rega Jha insinuated that, as a former Arabic linguist in the U.S. military, the writer of Alice in Arabia was inherently racist. The corollary implication: that U.S. military personnel kill innocent Muslims (try the opposite). Time’s Rabia Chaudry ranted that Alice in Arabia bears similarity to lynching narratives.
Facing this sea of anger, one could easily, like Alice, have become lost.
Luckily, however, Lily Rothman was on hand to elucidate censorship’s beneficence — why ABC is lucky to have those who know, to tell them what to speak. But Rothman’s summation also tells us something else.
Through all these various criticisms, one constant emerges — the defective regurgitation of Edward Said’s Orientalism. Defective because, where Said wrote in pursuit of objective inquiry, his seminal work has now become the go-to defense for insipid moral relativism. It’s the fetishism of guilty souls — “let us not debate, for we are sinners.”
But let’s be clear. Fear of reaction is no excuse for self-censorship. Indeed, the opposite is true. As the Supreme Court has repeatedly explained, a democratic society must accept the risk of offense as the price of empowered dialogue. After all, is there any area of political discourse that we can guarantee will not cause offense to someone?
Of course not.
And let’s be clear about something else.
While Alice in Arabia would likely have been somewhat cartoonish in its philosophy, it would still have been to America’s benefit. That’s because it would have illuminated the predicament of women in Saudi Arabia.
Yes, an expansive insight into Saudi Arabia would have been preferable. Nevertheless, we must accept the world in which we live. We must recognize that TV stations like ABC Family possess the avenues of appeal that C-SPAN-style debates (sadly) do not.
Because in the end, women’s rights in Saudi Arabia are not a small concern. Because for thousands of women in the kingdom, each new dawn begets new slavery. Because when a woman in Saudi Arabia is accosted for wearing nail polish, or beaten at a whim, or has her genitals forcibly mutilated, or is leashed like a dog every day of her life, these are not just small inconveniences. And when five-year-old girls live and die as human piñatas, these are not simply “real-life difficulties.”
It doesn’t get more black-and-white than this.
Today, in America, the victorious censors, those like Salon’s lifestyle editor, should look in the mirror.
Lifestyle. A word of subjective definition in a world of unequal freedoms.