Salman Rushdie's attack and the fight for the right to offend

Freedom of Speech by Alex Bilmes | Soho House

The fight for freedom of speech is a matter of life and death, says ‘Esquire’ editor in chief, Alex Bilmes – and let’s not forget it

Friday 19 August 2022      By Alex Bilmes       Photograph by Axel Martens

The thing that impressed me most forcibly, at the time, about the near psychotic furore that greeted the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, was that anyone could get quite so foam-mouthed with indignation about that most apparently innocuous thing: a book. Not just any book. A literary novel, of all things. A long and dense and richly rewarding (but REALLY long and REALLY dense) literary novel. 

What did I know, then? I knew nothing. I was an innocent. I had not, lucky for me, encountered fascism in my own life, only in the pages of other books.

I felt this bafflement at the reaction to his book so keenly, perhaps, because I was myself at that moment up to my saucer-shaped eyeballs in the things: books, that is. Literary novels, specifically. And rather than making me furious and afraid, and ready to throw them on a bonfire and call for the murders of their authors, I found these books to be both thrilling and consoling. I still do. And I still find the people who write and publish them to be heroes. Those who seek to prevent them doing so are villains.

In 1989, the year in which the fatwa on Rushdie was declared, I was raving by night and reading by day. That was pretty much the sum of my activities – a pattern that would repeat for some years. I was 17, studying for my A-levels, hoping to go on and read English lit at university. Those two spaces seemed equally fun, and equally profound: the liberation of the dancefloor and the freedom of the page. These were both places where anything went. Self-expression, unpoliced, unfettered by convention, or propriety, or – worst of all – good taste. Good taste was then, and continues to be, the enemy. (OK, good taste and religious fundamentalists.)

I suppose I should not have been surprised, really, that a bunch of evil theocrats in the Middle East should take exception to the thoughts and statements of a writer. But at the time it did seem shocking. (It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, as someone who has actually read it, that the arguments against Rushdie’s book — that it was blasphemous, and so on — were specious and nonsensical. The whole idea of blasphemy is specious and nonsensical.)

In the era of social media, we are accustomed to spittle-flecked, swivel-eyed outrage greeting any expression of an opinion of any kind on every subject. The idea that a writer might be censured, and even censored, is – tragically – a commonplace. 

Today, everyone is angry about everything. In 1989 that didn’t seem to be the case, not in my memory. In the West, at least, we believed in freedom of speech as a given. We didn’t think – or I didn’t, and still don’t for that matter – that there was anything wrong with offending someone else. The fault was, and remains, with the person who takes offence. You could say whatever you wanted. You could say that Salman Rushdie is a terrible writer and his books are a gigantic yawn. You’d be incorrect, but so what? What would have been wrong, though – what was wrong, and continues to be – would be for anyone else to attempt to prevent you from saying that. 

This is not a defence of hate speech. Hate speech is illegal. Racism, misogyny, homophobia: these are despicable, and should be prosecuted.

But if the attack on Salman Rushdie reminds us of anything, it must be of the fact that the fight for freedom of speech is a matter of life and death. Not metaphorically. The enemies of that freedom, from right and left, liberal and conservative, secular and religious, believe they should be able to control what the rest of us say, and write, and publish. They believe they ought to be able to choose our words for us. They are antidemocratic. They are fascists. 

There can be no equivocation here. Limp arguments, from left and right, that seek to shut down debate – weaponising language in a puritanical attempt to police the way we think as much as the way we express ourselves – are indefensible and must be resisted at all costs.

As someone who commissions journalism, events such as the attack on Sir Salman make me more determined to edit writers based not on what they say – that’s up to them – but only how they say it. I hope that’s always been my approach. People have every right to be offended by what Esquire writers say, but no right to do anything about it except look elsewhere for their journalism.

In 2019, 30 years on from the fatwa, Salman Rushdie was a guest speaker at the Esquire Townhouse in London, an event that I help to organise. Just as he was preparing to do in New York three years later, he sat on stage with a moderator and answered questions about his life and work for an audience of admirers. Just as he would have been in New York had he not been stabbed by someone intent on doing him terrible harm, he was warm and wise and witty and erudite, fizzing with ideas and intelligence.

Like everyone, when I heard the news from New York my blood ran cold. 

What can one say except to wish Sir Salman a speedy return to good health? To marvel at his bravery, to denounce, in the strongest possible terms, the cowardliness of his attacker, and his attacker’s defenders? And to invite him, whenever he is ready, to make a return visit to Esquire, to talk about his life’s work again. It would be our pleasure and privilege, indeed our honour, to have him.

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