A moral imbecile

Stanley Fish is a smug bastard. This is not news, but he’s smugger than usual in his New York Times blog post on Rushdie and Spellberg and Jones. The first sentence is a staggerer.

Salman Rushdie, self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment, is at it again.

That just irritates the bejesus out of me. Self-appointed? Poster boy? At it again? Excuse me? He could hardly have been less self-appointed – it was the Ayatollah and his murderous illegal bloodthirsty ‘fatwa’ that appointed Rushdie a supporter of free speech, not Rushdie. And Rushdie defends free speech in general, not the First Amendment in particular; how parochial of smug sneery Fish to conflate the two. And ‘poster boy’; that’s just stupid as well as insultingly patronizing: Rushdie doesn’t swan around with a crutch, he makes arguments in support of free speech. And ‘at’ what again? ‘At’ saying that publishers shouldn’t give in to threats either from Islamists or from academics speaking for notional Islamists or ‘offended’ Muslims who in some distant subjunctive world might be ‘offended’ by a novel about Mohammed’s child ‘bride’? Now that’s ‘self-appointed’ – Denise Spellberg did a lot more self-appointing than Rushdie did.

Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction.

Of course Random House is free to publish or not publish, but what happened is not quite that simple; Random House decided to publish and then at almost the last minute decided not to, for a very stupid and craven reason that then became public. That’s not illegal – Random House is ‘free’ to do that (depending on what it says in the contract, that is), but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t point out how stupid and craven Random House is.

Rushdie and the pious pundits think otherwise because they don’t quite understand what censorship is. Or, rather, they conflate the colloquial sense of the word with the sense it has in philosophical and legal contexts. In the colloquial sense, censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences, or because we feel that what we would like to say is inappropriate in the circumstances, or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior.)

Oh do you; do you really. Someone decides not to write something because (for instance) she fears being killed by enraged Islamists – and you call that ‘civilized behavior’?

I don’t believe a word of it; I don’t believe that even of Stanley Fish; I think he must have lost track of what he’d just said by the time he wrote the bit about civilized behavior. But that was stupid of him, and smug, and sloppy. If he does believe that, then he’s a moral imbecile.

But censorship is not the proper name; a better one would be judgment. We go through life adjusting our behavior to the protocols and imperatives of different situations, and often the adjustments involve deciding to refrain from saying something. It’s a calculation, a judgment call. It might be wise or unwise, prudent or overly cautious, but it has nothing to with freedom of expression.

Oh yes it does. When the ‘imperative’ of a particular ‘situation’ is that our judgment tells us not to write a novel or play or cartoon because of threats of violence then that has a great deal to do with freedom of expression. If we can’t safely write X Y or Z because furious religious zealots might kill us if we do, then we don’t have freedom of expression. It’s been taken away from us by criminal extortionists. Stanley Fish ought not to be so complacent about this.

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