The Freedom to Doubt


We have all been so shocked by the news on Friday about Sir Salman Rushdie being attacked. For all of us, who believe in free speech and the power of literature to explore, question and use cynicism to take on theories and beliefs, Friday was a very sad day. Sir Salman has been through much turmoil in the 33 years since he published The Satanic Verses and let’s not forget, scores of people have died as a direct result of the fatwa levelled against him by Ayotollah Khomeni in 1989.

I don’t propose to get into the complicated religious issues around this subject here, but this despicable act in the US does bring into focus what is happening in the secular world that is analogous to the Rushdie situation.

Back in 1989 we thought that this was just the voices of religious fundamentalists ruining a great and peaceful religion like Islam. But what we have been seeing for several years now, is the slow destruction of the power of debate and discourse. Completely fuelled by social media, (and Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro, etc.), and the power it has to target the reactionary. This then feeds into seemingly rational people, and now non-religious politics has been moving towards complete polarisation.

If I don’t agree with you, I don’t have the mental aptitude to try and argue my case rationally, I will just lambast and ridicule you, using vitriol and hate to inspire my base to even higher forms of hate. Where this all ends is exactly what we saw on Friday and with Jo Cox and Sir David Amess and the attack on the US Capitol etc. etc.

It is even extending to the business world. The ridiculously uninformed attack on ESG by Mike Pence and the American right, has raised the rabid level of debate to a new level. Tucker Carlson on Fox News recently said that the point of ESG is to “push corporate investors to the left.” Now not to destroy the point of this piece that may very well be the case, but as usual, Carlson presented his argument as a fait accompli and the only other voice on his report was Ron Desantis, the governor of Florida, who is effectively banning ESG. There was no counterargument from the other side.

Something has got to change. If it doesn’t, it isn’t overblowing things to say that democracy itself faces extinction.

In my view, governments have got to get involved.

  1. Social media has to be regulated and Twitter, Facebook, etc. have to be forced to introduce comprehensive ID checks. It is too powerful and dangerous to allow a faceless individual with an email address and no other ID check to be allowed to hide behind their keyboard and spout whatever they want.
  2. Democratic governments have to understand the power of the media and create rules to force media companies to have balanced debates, (I appreciate that this is very wishful thinking!).

It is hilarious that after 12 years in power, our government is so unsure of its policies that it is effectively starting the death of the BBC because they ask tricky questions of the Conservative ministers. And the BBC is an organisation that is mandated by law to present both sides of an argument.

On Friday, I watched Newsnight on BBC TV discussing the Rushdie attack. Kate Maltby of the Index on Censorship, very powerfully defended the right to freedom of speech and the power of literature to expand and enrich the human condition. It was her very thought-provoking line that sits at the top of this article.

There are two certainties in life that are without question. For every other part of life, we need the freedom and the power to doubt.