‘Knife’ cuts through the debate on free speech - Hindustan Times
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‘Knife’ cuts through the debate on free speech

May 24, 2024 11:17 PM IST

Knife, his latest is a sharp work of literature that cuts the flab of Joseph Anton and presents Rushdie as barebones.

To thine own self be true. And that’s the essence and ironically, messianic message of Salman Rushdie’s oeuvre and life. Knife, his latest is a sharp work of literature that cuts the flab of Joseph Anton and presents Rushdie as barebones.

Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie reacts on stage prior to a lecture from his book 'Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder', in Berlin on May 16, 2024. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie reacts on stage prior to a lecture from his book 'Knife: Meditations After an Attempted Murder', in Berlin on May 16, 2024. (Photo by Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)(AFP)

But that’s not why this slim book is one of the most important pieces of writing of our times. Rushdie’s easiest work is probably the most difficult one for any reader with a conscience. As he lay recovering, half-blinded and handicapped, from an assassination attempt, the world around Rushdie busied itself with examining and re-examining the limits to free speech. What is hate speech? What is defamatory speech? Who ascertains what is worthy of “punishment”? Governments? Assassins? Radicalised mobs? Civil society?

With India in the throes of the general elections, these questions are more relevant than ever. Each time people exercise their right to vote, in India or elsewhere, they rally behind an idea. An idea that gets articulated in both speech and action. Like religion, politics is also a matter of faith. And as many of us end up realising, it can be equally one-sided. Devotion stays unrequited. Like love. Religion, politics, devotion, and love — they all require expression for sustenance. Yet, the respective expression to each of these categories attempts to preclude or, worse, penalise expressions for all the others.

Some of the staunchest believers in the freedom of speech and expression sometimes advocate for setting limits. For the greater good. Even peace and harmony, the mirage. But let this be said, this qualified freedom is no freedom. The right to offend, the right to punch up and down through words, the right to be vulgar and hateful, are as important as “speaking truth to power”.

It is time to resurrect 19th-century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill’s near absolutism and 20th-century American educationist and free-speech advocate Alexander Miklejohn’s principles of absolutism. Free speech does not promote democracy, it is democracy. Meiklejohnian absolutism puts the burden of proof on the challenger, not the speaker, that any speech is harmful or causes imminent danger to life or property. And this is what irks most liberals. Because hate speech has led to countless acts of violence, even the believers in free speech squirm at absolutism. But this is where Rushdie emerges as the first among equals. Freedom of speech has no twilight zone, no in-between space. It’s either there or not. And a half-blind Rushdie, a victim of Imam Youtubie’s words and the actions of A (assassin), still upholds the freedom principle, like his compatriot Kenan Malik, the British philosopher.

Words are violence — both liberals and conservatives want to argue the same. It’s high time this obfuscation ends. Words are words and acts of violence are acts. Yes, words can cause damage even when not followed up by action. But is it not worth noting that damaging words almost always invoke tangible acts of violence, in the past, present or future? Either it’s a memory or a threat that words derive their power from. One doesn’t need to delve into Derrida’s La Voix et La Phenomene to grasp that words, by and in themselves, are meaningless unless they signify something that the listener understands. Hence, expletives in a foreign language do not hit as hard as those in the mother tongue.

But is all speech innocent? Absolutely not. Unexamined statements made from pulpits of political and religious power have been wreaking havoc since the dawn of time. The damage, however, has been caused by actions that those words have demanded and entailed. A safe and successful society ought to restrict these actions. Because it cannot do so, the doubling down on speech happens. Restrict speech, banish poets, incarcerate the satirist, damn the obscene, kill the blasphemer, but say nothing about acts. In fact, words are often employed to justify acts of violence. Both liberals and conservatives are guilty of condoning, or at least staying silent about, acts of violence that are committed in the name of disrespect to ideology — political, social, or religious.

If an ideologue can go on with deception, the fault lies in the calling-out and accountability mechanisms. To strengthen those, we need more freedom and not less. If we demand restrictions of any kind to “protect” any group, we are weakening the said mechanisms. Freedoms do not suit any institution or belief system, however liberal. All belief systems — even the most liberal or welfarist ones — are, at best, a few steps away from becoming a dogma. There cannot be any caveats or contexts to freedom of speech. If there’s incitement to violence, the latter must be checked, punished, and made an example of. Through expression, people and ideologies expose themselves. Speech, however objectionable, therefore, is useful. When we restrict it, we plunge into speculations. Nothing good comes out of speculating, personally, politically, or phenomenologically.

Coming back to Rushdie, his championing of free speech encompasses his public and personal selves. He is as articulate about his politics as he’s uninhibited about his love for Eliza, his fifth and current wife. We express therefore we are. We are lovers when we express love, and liars when our words are lies. Let the actions that follow them decide the rest.

Nishtha Gautam is an author, academic and journalist. The views expressed are personal

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