‘This is a man who’

I finally got around to watching ‘Question Time’ and Shirley Williams doing her party piece. The man in the audience asked the first question: is the knighthood given to Rushdie an insult to Muslims? SW was the first to answer: ‘I think it’s a mistake,’ she said. Then she went on. ‘This is a man who has offended Muslims in a very powerful way,’ she said in an unmistakable tone of indignation, then pointing out, absurdly, that he’d been protected for years at great expense to the taxpayer. Then she said it wasn’t Blair’s doing, it was the committee, and they should have etc etc etc. That’s when Hitchens said, quite rightly, ‘That’s a contemptible answer.’ Well so it damn well is.

‘This is a man who’ – in a tone of controlled anger. Excuse me? Excuse me? This is a man who wrote a novel, in part of which he expressed some ironic views about the p. M. What is wrong with that? What possessed Shirley Williams to say that as if he’d committed sodomy on Princess Beatrice’s pet rabbit? Would she say that about an academic – as it might be a well-known philosopher, such as her former husband – who wrote something critical about the p. M.? I certainly hope not, but perhaps she would. But what is her operating assumption there? That it is forbidden to write something critical about the p. M.? Well if so, that’s an end to scholarship of many kinds – comparative religion, history, politics, and quite a few related fields. Then perhaps she thinks it’s forbidden only for novelists? But if so, why? On what grounds? And where is that rule written down? Why haven’t all potential novelists (which would be all of us) been told?

Perhaps she thinks, as some cowering people said in 1989, that he ought to have known, or he must have known, or he did know. But if he ought or must have or did – again, so what? So.the.fuck.what? What follows from that? So does Irshad Manji know, so did and does Ayaan Hirsi Ali, so do Maryam Namazie and Homa Arjomand, so does Ibn Warraq, so does the Council of ex-Muslims, so does Gina Khan, so does Necla Kelik, so do a great many people; and they bravely don’t let that stop them. What is Shirley Williams saying – that they ought to? That they ought to know that Muslim men (much more men than women) will be offended and therefore shut up? Does she really think anything so contemptible? Or has she just not thought it through.

What people apparently do with these ‘offended’ claims is reverse engineer: they reason backwards: they look at the magnitude of the ‘offence’ and then assign guilt accordingly – but that’s wrong. If that rule held no one would ever criticize or dispute or tease anything because of the risk of ‘offence’ out of all proportion to the intent and to the harm done. Instead what people should be doing is coldly examining the merit of the putative grievance, independent of the quantity of fuss made.

Human arrangements, practices, customs, habits, institutions have to be open to discussion – family and marriage included, George S to the contrary notwithstanding. ‘This is a man who’ is not an appropriate response to such activities. (As George S notes in his very next post.)

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