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Saturday, 10 January 2015

The age of self-censorship

I’ve nothing against the various displays of 'solidarity' with the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre. I’m sure the folk at the demonstrations mean well, but all of that #jesuischarlie and candlelit vigil stuff won’t amount to a hill of beans. If the demonstrators think they are protecting freedom of speech, I’m afraid they’re a bit late. We gave that up when we embarked upon the age of self-censorship. 

Historians might quibble about the date, but I reckon the age of self-censorship started in 1989 when the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie. Some of us jumped up and down at the time and demanded a vigorous response from the authorities. Instead of lying low and apologising for Rushdie’s ‘offence’, I thought we should have printed hundreds of thousands of copies of ‘Midnight’s Children’ and distributed them free in schools, libraries and health centre waiting rooms. I thought we should have filled huge skips full of these books and left them in every town centre, just to make a point. We should have done something like that because the point was worth making. The bedrock of our civilisation is intellectual freedom and we should have been confident enough to send a clear message to the medievalists: Feel free to practice whichever religion you want, believe whichever ancient fairy stories you like, but do it in peace. Do not seek to impose your views and your rules on people who do not follow your beliefs. It’s really as simple as that. If we’d made our position clear at the time, we might have saved ourselves a whole heap of trouble. Instead, we’ve seen our political and cultural leaders retreat from their responsibilities to protect the ideals they’re supposed to hold dear. 

I don’t blame the fundamentalist nut-jobs for this state of affairs, because fundamentalist nut-jobs have being doing fundamentalist nut-job things for centuries and will no doubt continue to do those things. There will, alas, always be a tiny but violent minority of fundamentalist nut-jobs and one of the things about that tiny but violent minority is that they tend to notice when people cave in to pressure. And we have, since 1989, been doing a lot of caving in. In the years since the Rushdie fatwa, who knows how many authors and journalists have excised characters, themes or lines from their stories and articles because they feared reprisals from fundamentalists? 

Of course, it’s impossible to quantify things that only might have existed, but it is possible to judge things that have happened. Only a couple of years ago, the Obama administration asked YouTube to remove a video that had (allegedly) set off attacks on the American embassy in Benghazi. Then, to compound this craven stupidity, the de facto leader of the western world made a speech to the UN in which he said that “the future must not belong to the slanderers of the Prophet Mohammed”. Really? Imagine, if you will, how folk would have reacted had George W. Bush said “the future must not belong to the slanderers of the Lord Jesus Christ.”   

As long as we keep re-drawing our line in the sand, we’re heading for our date with destiny: the point at which there will be no-one willing or able to stand up to the fundamentalist nut-jobs. And, as we re-draw that line, we become acclimatised to the idea that a British author might have to go into hiding because of the ‘actions’ of one of his fictional characters; we become acclimatised to the idea that a Dutch film maker can be murdered because he makes a film critical of a certain religion; we become acclimatised to the idea that the headquarters of a Danish magazine can be fire bombed because it prints some cartoons; we become acclimatised to the idea of not publishing ‘offensive’ cartoons; we become acclimatised to the idea that police officers, civil servants and journalists will suppress factual accounts of grooming and gang rape for fear of ‘causing offence’.  

When the ‘blasphemous’ publication of cartoons led to the attack on that obscure little Danish magazine in 2005, not a single British newspaper or magazine acted in solidarity with their fellow journalists. Not one editor had the guts to publish the cartoons and say: ’This is what all the fuss is about’. Of course, they all composed editorials declaring their abhorrence of intimidation and violence and their unshakeable belief in our rights to freedom of speech, but -for the sake of not offending sensibilities- they decided against publishing the cartoons. Not one of them would do it.
And here we are again, pretending to show solidarity in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo outrage. Except, when The Telegraph published an article on the massacre, the cartoon image of Mohammed was pixelated in order to obscure the view and avoid causing offence. The BBC website invited historian Tom Holland to write an article on Islam, but refused his request to publish the cartoon. As David Dimbleby revealed the other night on ‘Question Time’, it is official BBC policy that: “the prophet Mohammed should not be represented in any shape or form”.  
Amol Ragan, editor of The Independent stated that his “every instinct” was to publish the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but he decided that it was “too much of a risk”. He admitted that he was “very uncomfortable” with this. One is tempted to point out that so he should be, because he’s supposed to be a journalist. 

As the blogger David Budge put it:
'I get why journalists are scared of offending Muslims. I just don’t get why they’re journalists'.

So, good people, go to your demonstrations and your candlelit vigils. Tweet your hashtags and put your Je suis Charlie badges up on facebook. Feel free to live in the hope that it will make some difference. But if any of those murderous thugs are watching, the stupid folk who think it’s their duty to slaughter the infidel, how much notice do you think they’re going to take?    

What we need to do is to re-draw our line in the sand, but let’s move it a little bit in the other direction. Let’s do something that makes a positive, celebratory statement about how much we value freedom of speech. Something that will tell the medievalists that, instead of picking on little magazines, they will have to take on every publication in the land. Let’s do something that really does say: "We are all Charlie Hendo."
I make this appeal to all newspaper and magazine editors: Please, print an image of the prophet Mohammed. Do it on your front page and explain why you are doing it. Do it to make a point about freedom of speech. Do it to express the right of those with no religious affiliations not to be bound by the rules that believers are bound by. Do it, not to offend anyone’s sensibilities, but to celebrate a sensibility that has evolved over several hundred years of conflict and socio-political development throughout a continent. It’s the sensibility that embraces the most important diversity of all: intellectual diversity. Do it, if you think that value is worth sticking up for.   

But if you can’t do that, please stop insulting our intelligence by pretending that your actions are informed by ‘respect’. At least be brave enough to call your reluctance to publish exactly what it is: fear. There’s nothing wrong with being frightened; being frightened in the face of intimidation is part of our survival mechanism. But if we don’t republish those cartoons, all we’re doing is letting those poor French journalists take the bullets on our behalf. So if you can’t at least honour their bravery by republishing the work that got them killed, please don’t write about showing 'solidarity' with the massacre victims. Please don’t come out with any more fatuous pieties about how we’re all going to live together in perfect harmony. Please don’t patronise us with more rubbish about your staunch support for freedom of speech, because all you’re doing is redrawing that line in the sand, that line we’ve been moving since 1989.   

So please … print a cartoon. 

Or just shut up and admit that we are now in the age of self-censorship and that the bad men with the guns have already won.

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