The self-fulfilling prophecy strikes again

Jonathan Dimbleby said one particularly odd thing in his explanation of Index’s decision.

When John Kampfner alerted me to the prospective publication of an interview with Jytte Klausen and to our editor’s wish to illustrate it with the “offending” cartoons, it was plainly a matter for the board to determine. Any other course would have been irresponsible…A year earlier, in September 2008, four men had been arrested for allegedly fire-bombing the North London home of the publisher of Gibson Books who had proposed publishing The Jewel of Medina. Only the most cavalier attitude towards the safety and security of those directly and indirectly involved in the publication of the Index interview would have failed to note that outrage.

Wait…what? Why? What’s he talking about? The Jewel of Medina is a different book. Why is Dimbleby taking it for granted that what four guys did by way of reaction to one book, or rather to the entirely manufactured fuss about one book, is relevant to a different book, a different situation, a different issue?

Well…uh…because the cartoons fuss was about Angry Muslims, and because the manufactured fuss about The Jewel of Medina would have been about Angry Muslims if it had ever happened as opposed to being predicted and then conjured up by the coverage of the prediction, and because the putative, notional, predicted fuss about the publication of the cartoons in Klausen’s book would have been about Angry Muslims if it had ever happened, which it never has, and because the New Improved putative, notional, predicted fuss about the publication of the cartoons at Index on Censorship would be about Angry Muslims again.

In other words, Dimbleby is extrapolating from the fact that four random guys attempted to set a fire in response to a worked-up fuss about one book and concluding that therefore it is dangerous to do something quite unrelated to that book (unless the word ‘Muslim’ is enough to make the two related) and that therefore it is worth self-censoring an organization that claims to monitor censorship. That is, if you think about it, a fairly ridiculous conclusion to draw. It borders on not thinking.

It also involves a kind of block thinking that in almost any other context would be called racist, or something similar. ‘Muslim’ is not a race, as I and others keep pointing out, but on the other hand, to take crazily thuggish behavior of a very few members of a perceived group as likely behavior of members of that group on all possible occasions, is to treat that group with a level of suspicion and generalized fear that is not usually consistent with equal treatment. It’s reasonable to think of groups such as murderers or terrorists that way, but with broader, non-criminal groups, a certain amount of benefit of the doubt is necessary for equality and fairness. The US internment of Japanese citizens during WW II is a classic illustration of that. Dimbleby’s unexplained jump from The Jewel of Medina to a completely different book carries an unpleasant whiff of universal suspicion.

The fact is, there has been no fuss about Klausen’s book, except for the one that Yale itself created. No fuss. No angry emails, no nothing. The anticipatory fuss is the only one there has been.

This is what happened with Random House and Denise Spellberg, and it is what happened with Does God Hate Women? – a reporter predicted a violent reaction to that book and the publisher got temporarily nervous. Fortunately and admirably that publisher – Continuum, Oliver Gadsby, Sarah Douglas – did much better than Random House and Yale. But the point is, in all three cases, there were no Angry Muslims, there were only people predicting Angry Muslims and then treating their predictions as if they were reality.

This is not just bad for free expression – it’s also unfair to Muslims! It’s the soft tyranny of low expectations. It’s not the way to go.

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