‘Pussies and wimps’: why Salman Rushdie plea for free speech rings hollow

That’s no way to have a debate. Helmut Fohringer

The PEN literary gala has been overshadowed by controversy. Its decision to honour Charlie Hebdo with an award for freedom of expression courage has provoked several authors – Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi – to withdraw from the event in protest.

The protesting authors object that Charlie Hebdo is responsible for publishing selectively offensive material. While such offensive speech should be protected, they argue, it should not be rewarded and celebrated.

Salman Rushdie has been particularly vocal in his criticism of the protesting authors, publicly berating them on Twitter:

Rushdie has since apologised for the remark, but it is not his first such outburst. He made similar comments in 2008 when defending Martin Amis against accusations of Islamophobia:

If we don’t say what we think or articulate what is being generally thought, then we are self-censoring, which is wimpish.

The link Rushdie draws between self-censorship – not saying everything we might want to say – and cowardice is too simplistic. Self-censorship can also be a form of civility.

Civility means avoiding insulting or disruptive speech, and making the effort to justify our political views in a way that even our opponents can potentially appreciate.

As such, civility is a way of keeping democratic debate alive amid hostile disagreement. The political philosopher, Jeremy Waldron writes that civility is a matter of “staying present” in political debate:

Fierce political antagonism need not and should not precipitate exit from the political process … One stays with one’s antagonists, one stays, as it were, in the room, confronting them, debating with them.

The trouble is that people can be discouraged from staying in the room, or even from entering it in the first place, if argument is conducted in an aggressive, disrespectful or abusive manner.

Civil self-censorship can help to create a more constructive discussion. It can also help to create a more democratic discussion in which all voices are heard. And to stand up for civility of this kind when everyone else is yelling can actually be quite a courageous thing to do.

That being said, there are certainly some valid free speech concerns about the appeal to civility. Throughout history, powerful elites have used particular understandings of what counts as civil or polite and uncivil or impolite behaviour as a way of stifling the speech of disadvantaged groups.

In particular, we can notice the way the language of civility has been used as a way of marginalising women and racial minorities. Notoriously, women who have publicly demanded equality have often been seen and discredited as improperly strident, while black people have been dismissed as rude.

This sort of thing continues today, though sometimes in a more subtle form. The insistence on a calm, orderly and uncontroversial tone in political debate can easily operate to exclude individuals and groups who may struggle to express themselves in the approved manner. It can also exclude certain kinds of legitimate grievances: it may be that there are dissenting views which can only be adequately expressed with bitterness and anger.

But for just these reasons, we should be uneasy about the terms in which Rushdie couches his criticism of the protesting authors. Calling those who disagree with you “pussies” and “wimps” is no way to defend free speech. It is, on the contrary, using demeaning language to belittle and marginalise opponents. Just as civility codes have been used historically as a way of stifling dissent, so too has the sort of obnoxious macho bullying practised by Rushdie.