Free speech reflections

Andrew Donaldson on the state of free speech in the West, and SA, post the Rushdie stabbing


THE response from the Iranian state media to the sickening attack on Salman Rushdie has been one of elation. One front page, for example, featured an image of the author with devil’s horns and the banner headline: “Satan’s eye has been blinded”. Another praised the would-be assassin: “A thousand bravos … to the brave and dutiful person who attacked the apostate and evil Salman Rushdie in New York. The hand of the man who tore the neck of God's enemy must be kissed.”

None of this surprises, seeing as the fish-wraps there are all run by mad mullahs and bearded weirdies crazed on extremism. The gloating has however drawn international condemnation from reasonable folk across the political spectrum. 

From the ANC, however, there has only been silence. But this, too, is not unexpected. Ties between Pretoria and Teheran are described as “historical and friendly”.

While there may be no public endorsement of Iran’s official position that Rushdie and his readers have only themselves to blame for this outrage — “quiet diplomacy”, etc — it is unlikely there will be much enthusiasm in the Union Buildings for the call by former UK chancellor Rishi Sunak for tougher sanctions against Iran, whose leadership has no plans to withdraw the bounty, now standing at $3.3-million, placed on Rushdie’s head in 1989. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Sunak, a contender for Tory leadership, has also warned of the potential futility in reviving the Iran nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. 

“We urgently need a new, strengthened deal and much tougher sanctions,” he said at the weekend, “and if we can't get results then we have to start asking whether the JCPOA is at a dead end. The brutal stabbing of Salman Rushdie should be a wake-up call for the West, and Iran’s reaction to the attack strengthens the case for proscribing the [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps].” 

The IRGC is a branch of the Iranian armed forces tasked with protecting the country’s Islamic republic political system. Their operations against “deviant movements” included the use of a surface-to-air missile to down a Ukraine International Airlines flight in January 2020 in a case of “mistaken identity”. The corps has been branded a terrorist organisation by a number of countries, including the United States.

Several commentators, meanwhile, have suggested Sunak’s “wake-up call” is one that concerns a more general assault on free speech and artistic freedom. “Would it be possible today,” The Times asked in an editorial, “to publish [Rushdie’s 1988 novel] The Satanic Verses or voice views that satirised, even indirectly, sects, beliefs or tenets of any established religion? Would publishers today, fearful of lawsuits, an avalanche of protests and hostile incitements on social media, not steer clear of anything that might be deemed controversial or likely to hurt their image and sales?”

Several leading British authors and artists have suggested not. Booker prizewinning novelist Howard Jacobson, for example, told the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Monday that he’s now self-censoring and that he doubts whether his first novel, 1983’s Coming From Behind, would be published in today’s climate.

Asked if he felt “constrained by political correctness and wokery”, Jacobson replied, “A bit. There is self-censorship. Without doubt one self-censors now. I was censored a bit. There was a feeling about having to go a little bit more careful now. But you have got to be more than not offensive now, you have got to be seen to be making an attempt to reach out beyond. I am every wrong thing to be, I am a man, I am a white man, I am a straight white man, and being Jewish doesn’t make you diverse.”

Like other writers, Jacobson is now only too aware of the restrictions being placed on freedom of speech by agents and publishers who now employ “sensitivity readers” to advise on “offensive passages”. 

He first realised “something was in the air”, he told the Daily Telegraph earlier, in February, when his American publisher complained that the lead character in his 2019 novel, Live a Little, had referred to one of her carers as “that black one”. “It’s the sort of thing this woman would say,” he protested. But still he removed it, thinking, “I don’t care, I’ll have a quiet life.” 

When, however, his publisher objected to the character calling someone a “Jew boy”, Jacobson said, “Look, I am entitled to know whether or not that’s offensive. If I’ve put it in, it means it’s not offensive, so that stayed.”

The question of “offence” is important. As Rushdie himself once wrote, “Just what is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” Helen Zille put it this way, on Twitter, in December 2016: “No-one has the right not to be offended. This right does not appear in any Bill of Rights that I know of.”

It’s an issue I had attempted to explore in Heart of Dickness: Jacob Zuma & The Spear (Tafelberg, 2012), a short e-book about the ANC’s “crazed assault” on artistic freedom when it mobilised its supporters against Cape Town artist Brett Murray’s satirical painting of the then president and the Johannesburg gallery that exhibited his work. 

Readers will recall that Murray had depicted Accused Number One in the style of a well-known Soviet propaganda poster of Vladimir Lenin — only with his penis exposed. His Achilles piel, as I put it at the time. 

What had attracted me to the controversy over The Spear was the piety and religiosity that framed the outrage directed at Murray. It certainly smacked of a fatwa, especially with a leader from the Shembe or Nazareth Baptist Church, the largest religious group in southern Africa, calling for the artist to be stoned.

When Zuma, his children and the ANC launched their court action to have The Spear removed from The Goodman Gallery and to compel City Press to drop an image of the painting from its website, it did seem like a “meaty legal battle over freedom of expression and the limits of that freedom was on the cards”. Alas, it was not to be. The case drew to an “inconclusive close”. 

Before then, however, Zuma’s senior counsel, Gcina Malindi, suffered an emotional collapse following a bruising exchange with Judge Neels Claassen over the advocate’s claims that the painting had “racial overtones”. Malindi, who would later apologise for his unprofessional behaviour, told the court that declaring the painting and its publication unlawful “would go a long way to assuage (Zuma’s) wounded feelings”.

Several commentators had a stab at exploring these “wounded feelings”. Writing in the Sunday Times, Justice Malala, for example, echoed a suggestion first proffered by the SACP’s Blade Nzimande that Zuma may have endured the sort of humiliation and degradation suffered by Saartjie Baartman, the Khoisan woman who was displayed as a sexual curiosity in early 19th century Europe.

Elsewhere, Anton Harber, professor of journalism and media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, had this to say:

“There I was, proclaiming lofty principals about how our artists needed freedom – including the freedom to be provocative and even rude – and saying it was ‘silly’ to make a fuss about it. But it became clear that there was a widespread visceral reaction to the painting, which touched a nerve, and it was sobering how raw that nerve was. I came to regret using that word ‘silly’ and to rethink my fundamentalist view of free expression. Having taken a firm stand on the issue throughout the 1980s, I was wedded to a principled position that was not resonating, that was sounding rigid and inflexible. 

"Let me hastily say that I still believe deeply that free expression is a most important, even foundational, value and right because it enables the pursuit and defence of all other rights. For one thing, as former Constitutional Court Judge Kate O’Reilly has argued, you cannot have dignity without the freedom to express your views freely and noisily. Dignity and free expression are not at loggerheads – they are interdependent.”

For all that, Harber continued, there was a “vast gulf between such abstract arguments and what mattered to people whose rights were most compromised in the post-apartheid era”.

It was clear, then, that there was no point to “absolutist freedom of expression” if it did not address the needs of such people; the battle to protect the right to artistic freedom was a lost cause if it did not talk to the needs of all South Africans and not just those of artists, writers and activists. 

“At a time when our freedom needs stern defence,” he wrote, “when we depend on an active, involved citizenry to hold off those who would compromise our constitution, we have to ensure that these things matter to ordinary citizens. We have to take these debates out of the galleries, and campuses, and elite media, into the Diepsloots of the world. Or — even better — we have to bring the Diepsloots out of the margin and into the centre of these debates. When freedom of expression is seen as the right to demand housing, health and education, and not a squabble about a rude painting, then citizens might rise to defend it.”

It was, of course, not just a “squabble about a rude painting”. I was puzzled that Harber and others could not detect the causal link, given The Spear’s searing unsubtlety, between those most compromised in the post-apartheid South Africa and the prick in the portrait.

This, I sourly noted, appeared to be the problem: “[Art] was for clever people and those who did not get the picture, as it were, needed protection from such things lest they feel, whether intended or not, they have been victimised or unjustly targeted by artists exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression.”

I wondered, also, how Salman Rushdie and others would have responded to Harber. Would they have pointed out that it seldom bodes well when governments stir up angry mobs against rude paintings, disturbing books and unpopular ideas? That citizens — and artists are citizens, too — may get hurt and even killed in the process?

Which brings us back to The Satanic Verses. Something shifted in liberal life and thought with the 1989 fatwa calling for Rushdie’s assassination. Even more disturbing than the violence of Islamic extremism that followed, the firebombing of bookshops, the murder of translators, publishers, teachers and filmmakers, was the failure, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, to safeguard such fundamental rights as freedom of expression. 

Kenan Malik, writing in The Observerargued the furore over The Satanic Verses heralded a profound shift in self-perception of those in the west of a Muslim background: it was the beginning of a “distinctive Muslim identity”.  

“The battle over Rushdie’s novel,” Malik continued, “had a profound impact on liberals, too, many of whom were equally disoriented by the unravelling of old certainties. Some saw in the Rushdie affair a ‘clash of civilisations' and themselves began reaching for the language of identity, questioning the very presence of Muslims as incompatible with the values of the west, a sentiment that has grown only stronger over the past three decades.”

While some believed that a greater policing of speech was now imperative, others continued to challenge and provoke — and sometimes with appalling consequences. 

In May 2015, PEN America awarded Charlie Hebdo its freedom of expression courage award. This was four months after Islamist terrorists attacked the editorial offices of the French satirical magazine, killing eight of its staffers and four others, after its publications of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. 

More than 200 prominent writers and authors wrote to PEN, criticising the organisation for “valorising selectively offensive material”. The magazine responded by reprinting the cartoons on the eve of the September 2020 trial of the gunmen responsible for the attack. Its front page headline read, “All of that, just for this.” 

Like Howard Jacobson, I may not regard ourselves as “diverse”. Yet I live in a world that is increasingly diverse. As Jacobson suggested, a culture of self-censorship is taking hold among commentators who may fear dismissal as being too male and pale. Is this for the betterment of a multi-cultural society? That we button our lips and keep our thoughts to ourselves, in other words, in the hope that we’ll all get along just fine? Or is this a form of self-imposed tyranny, one fostered by the “respect for others” orthodoxy.

Free speech is particularly important in a diverse societies. It is inevitable, in a country like South Africa, with its mash-up of ethnicities and tribal loyalties, that we are going to offend one another. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Feelings may be hurt, and there will be offence. But it is the alternative, the fear of debate and discourse, that is truly offensive.