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Free speech and the importance of vigilance

Why the fury over JK Rowling’s latest book has similarities with the Salman Rushdie affair over 30 years ago, says Kim Thomas.

We must never stop being vigilant against those who seek to destroy the fundamental right to say what we think…

Some people – you might describe them as the usual suspects – are incandescent with rage at JK Rowling’s latest book, Troubled Blood, published under her Robert Galbraith pseudonym. Why? Because this 900-page whodunnit features, amongst its huge cast of characters, a serial killer who disguises himself in a woman’s coat and wig to fool his victims.

It goes without saying that outrage at this minor plot point (and one that has been used in countless other novels and films) is entirely misplaced: indeed, you can only make sense of it if you know that a number of wokesters were already angry with Rowling for her perceived insensitivity towards trans people. It therefore doesn’t matter that the character in her new book isn’t trans: a certain group of people were casting around for a provocation to stoke their sense of victimhood, and they found one. Among those swept away by the storm of faux indignation are pop duo Jedward (remember them? Me neither), who tweeted a joke about burning Rowling’s book, apparently oblivious to the historical resonances. (Hint: it’s rarely the good guys burning books.)

Many commentators gleefully see this as the latest insane manifestation of woke intolerance, in which supposedly progressive people delight in cancelling those who step out of line by trying to ban their books or have them sacked. Rowling is one of a growing number of people to feel the anger of the mob: people who have lost work for speaking out against the new orthodoxy include writers such as Graham Linehan, Gareth Roberts and Gillian Philip. There are others whose stories don’t make the media.

For those of us who consider ourselves to be on the left, it’s disturbing to see people we thought we agreed with engaged in a frenzied witch-hunt. It’s galling, too, to find that it is the libertarian right – people like Douglas Murray and Brendan O’Neill – who are standing up for free speech. And yet it wasn’t always thus.

In 1988, it was the publication of The Satanic Verses that sparked widespread anger, including calls for the book to be banned and for Rushdie to be killed. A copy of the book was publicly burned in Bradford. The saga culminated in the fatwa by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini that led to Rushdie going into hiding. The Japanese translator of the book was murdered.

There are certain obvious parallels. Then, as now, the offence taken was vastly out of proportion to the content of the book. (The Satanic Verses, far from being a crude attack on Islam, is best seen as a critical engagement with Islam’s ideas.) Then, as now, most people who attacked the book hadn’t read it. Most strikingly, then, as now, the very people you would expect to defend the author’s right to free speech – liberal-minded intellectuals – failed to do so. Left-wing politicians such as Jack Straw and Keith Vaz, along with leftish writers such as John Berger, Germaine Greer and John Le Carré, attacked Rushdie for offending Muslims. (“I don’t think it is given to any of us to be impertinent to great religions with impunity,” Le Carré said.) Kenan Malik recalls how “friends who were as irreligious and leftwing as I was… now celebrated book-burnings and chanted ‘death to Rushdie’”. These were the sophisticated liberals who had mocked the Christians protesting against Life of Brian and The Romans in Britain.

And yet, the right, who could have seized this opportunity to mount a defence of free speech, and claim the moral high ground, failed to do so. Roald Dahl said that Rushdie “knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise”. Conservative cabinet minister Norman Tebbit said Rushdie was an “outstanding villain” and that his “public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality.” Sticking the boot in, the historian and Tory peer Lord Dacre (Hugh Trevor-Roper) said: “I would not shed a tear if some British Muslims, deploring his manners, should waylay him in a dark street and seek to improve them.”

It seems extraordinary that right-wing pundits – people brought up in the Western Christian tradition, with little knowledge of or interest in Islam – should so readily abandon a previously cherished belief in free speech to attack a man who had offended a group of people they had otherwise shown no interest in defending. And yet the reason for their carelessness is mundane: they simply didn’t like Rushdie. He was an outsider – not only an immigrant, but an opinionated intellectual who expressed left-wing, anti-racist views and attacked British colonialism. That they allowed their personal animus to override their sense of principle showed that the British establishment’s supposed commitment to enlightenment values was as fragile as a spider web.

JK Rowling is not Salman Rushdie. Her speciality is commercial fiction; she is unlikely to win the Booker. Fortunately, as yet, trans activists don’t have an Ayatollah to issue death threats on their behalf. Unlike Rushdie, until a few months ago she was a universally loved public figure: an author who, almost single-handedly, had got boys reading again; who had donated so many millions to charity that she dropped off the Forbes billionaires list; and who had a touching back story of writing her first book as an impoverished single mother.

Yet one remarkable similarity is the reluctance of liberal intellectuals to speak out in her support. Where are the Labour MPs, the writers, the scientists standing up for her right to publish? All those people who normally champion science and rationality against the forces of superstition – Philip Pullman, Ben Goldacre, Brian Cox, among others – have been strangely quiet about Rowling. (The Oxford-educated Pullman feebly claimed in a tweet that he “can’t understand anything about this quarrel and the last time I asked about it I got shouted at by everyone, so I don’t know why the hell I bother to try and make sense of it.”) Humanists UK, so vocal in their support of Rushdie, have said nothings about Rowling.

What can we learn from these two sorry, but related tales? One is that the line, misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” is quoted more often than it is followed. Defending people we agree with and whom we like is easy; defending the right of people we don’t like very much to write things we disagree with is harder. The second is that, when push comes to shove, very many of us are cowards. Even people who like JK Rowling, and know that she’s right, have been frightened to speak in her defence. Our final lesson is this: the values we claim to cherish – of free speech, progress and rationality – are constantly under attack, and if they are to survive, they have to be robustly defended.

All of us, therefore, who value free speech should speak up in support of Rowling, just as the brave few spoke up in support of Rushdie all those years ago. We must never stop being vigilant against those who seek to destroy the fundamental right to say what we think.

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Kim Thomas

Kim Thomas has been a freelance journalist for more than 20 years, writing for national newspapers and magazines on topics such as technology, education and health care.

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  1. Brilliant Kim. Absolutely brilliant. I am proud to know you. If it takes us little people without a big media or political profile to do what’s right then so be it. We see those who are staying silent on this. We see the cowards too fearful for their own careers to stand up for what they know is right. We see them. We see the Labour MPs, the Liberal Democrats, the Women’s Equality Party, The Green Party, the high-profile columnists, actors, singers and media commentators. They are mostly silent but we see them. We see those who do speak out. We will remember them. And we’ll remember those whose cowardice is utterly shameful. No one has any right to call themselves a liberal if they don’t speak out for JK Rowling against the mob. We see the few who do. And we see the many who don’t. Cowards.

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