Published: April 18, 2014 00:00 IST |


Kenan Malik

Brendan Eich, CEO of Mozilla Corporation, the technology company that, among other things, is responsible for the Firefox browser, was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had once given a donation to a campaign against gay marriage. Mozilla decided that his views were incompatible with its core values of “diversity and inclusiveness.”

In another development, Brandeis University in America withdrew its offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a campaigner against female genital mutilation and a fierce critic of Islam, after critics described her as an “Islamophobe.” “We cannot overlook that certain of her past statements are inconsistent with Brandeis University’s core values,” the university explained.

Many people have applauded both Mr. Eich’s resignation and Brandeis’ snub to Ms. Hirsi Ali. The resignation of Mr. Eich, they insist, was a matter not of censorship but of good business practice. Brandeis University, many argue, should never have awarded Hirsi Ali a degree in the first place because the award was, in the words of the university’s Muslim Student Association “a personal attack on Brandeis’ Muslim students.” In fact what the two cases reveal is how censorship has become such an automatic, almost reflexive response to “unacceptable” ideas that it is barely seen as such.

Consider the claim that Brendan Eich’s resignation was not an issue of free speech. And perform a thought experiment. Imagine that we were talking not about the CEO of a tech company who holds views that many find odious but an academic author who has written a book that many find offensive. And suppose her publisher decides to pulp her book, because not to give in to the campaign against it would be bad for its business. How should we respond? Should we simply say, “The publisher pulped the book for business reasons, so this is not a matter of free speech?”

We don’t, of course, have to perform a thought experiment. Earlier this year, Penguin India agreed to withdraw all copies of Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus: An Alternative History after Hindu hardliners objected to it. Penguin was driven by a desire not to promote censorship but to protect its commercial interests. Yet, few would deny that at the heart of the case was the issue of free speech.

Censorship is not simply a matter of the state imposing restrictive laws or of the authorities silencing writers. It is also about the culture of discussion and debate, about the willingness to listen, engage and allow divergent views and beliefs to exist. In announcing Brendan Eich’s resignation, Mozilla insisted, without a hint of irony, that “Our organizational culture reflects diversity and inclusiveness… Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public.” Nothing could better illustrate the unreflective character of contemporary censorship than the fact that Mozilla could, with a straight face, portray the removal of Mr. Eich as a means of promoting “diversity and inclusiveness,” of maintaining a “culture of openness,” and of “encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public.” Diversity has come to mean diversity for my views, inclusiveness to mean inclusive of non-dissenting beliefs, openness to mean openness to ideas that I already accept.

Society of divergent views

I am a supporter of the campaign for same sex marriage. I have been highly critical of those who have opposed it. But I certainly do not wish to create a society in which the only acceptable views for public figures are ones that I like, where no one cannot hold, even in private, views that some may find objectionable, and where diversity means the filtering out of unacceptable views.

Much the same can be said about the debate over Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s withdrawn award. Ms. Hirsi Ali is a hugely controversial figure. Born in Somalia she grew up in Holland and became a fierce critic of Islam which she has described as a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death.” She wrote the screenplay for the 2004 anti-Islamic film “Submission,” whose director, Theo van Gogh, was murdered on an Amsterdam street by a radical Islamist, shortly after the film’s release. She now lives in America and is affiliated to the rightwing American Enterprise Institute.

I know Ms. Hirsi Ali and I admire her courage. I also trenchantly disagree with many of her views. She has, for instance, opposed Muslim immigration to Europe, supported the Swiss ban on the building of minarets and declared that “we are at war with Islam.” Such views I find unconscionable. But equally objectionable is the insistence that the fact that she is anti-Islamic and pro-Israel be of itself a reason to deny her an academic award.

There is, of course, a major objection to my argument against shutting people up. Many ideas are odious and obnoxious and should be shunned. Most of us would agree that the world would be a better place without racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia or hatred of Muslims. I would not want such ideas banned by the state. But I have long campaigned against all these hatreds. I would want through campaigning and social pressure to create a society in which fewer and fewer people are racist or homophobic, or hostile to Jews or to Muslims. Isn’t this an argument for shutting out certain ideas?

There is a difference between creating a society where we have genuinely reduced or removed certain forms of hatred and demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to certain people’s expectations of what is acceptable. That is merely to create a world in which social conversation becomes greyer and more timid, in which people are less willing to say anything distinctive or outrageous. The Culture of Shut Up fashions not a less hateful world but a more conformist one.

(Kenan Malik is a writer, lecturer and broadcaster.)

There’s a difference between creating a society where we have genuinely removed certain forms of hatred and demanding that people shut up because they have to conform to certain expectations of what is acceptable

Printable version | Apr 18, 2014 2:44:48 PM |

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