“The idea that any kind of free society can be constructed in which people will never be offended or insulted is absurd. So too is the notion that people should have the right to call on the law to defend them against being offended or insulted. A fundamental decision needs to be made: do we want to live in a free society or not? Democracy is not a tea party where people sit around making polite conversation. In democracies people get extremely upset with each other. They argue vehemently against each other’s positions. (But they don’t shoot.)
At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people’s opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: people must be protected from discrimination by virtue of their race, but you cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it’s a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.”
From Salman Rushdie’s piece “Do We Have to Fight the Battle for the Enlightenment All Over Again?”. You can find it and other great writing in his Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.
This is an almost complete summation of the trade we make to live in a free society. Oftentimes people will claim to resolutely stand behind the First Amendment, only to flinch when faced with unwelcome or merely objectionable ideas and words. Too frequently we forget that the freedom of speech is worthless unless it means the freedom for those with whom we disagree.
Any totalitarian can uphold the free expression of the speaker whose beliefs he approves. It’s when the 9/11-truther picks up his pen or the Holocaust-denier opens his mouth that we are confronted with the challenge of the Bill of Rights: to allow them to say what they believe without resorting to brutality or the false security offered by a government which can silence whatever is not the popular consensus. Moreover, we should want to hear ideas contrary to our own — as John Stuart Mill so astutely pointed out — because they are the only sieve through which we can affirm or refute our own beliefs. Who would want to live in a society without argument?
The foundational claim here can be encapsulated in a phrase uttered by Rosa Luxemburg: “Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently.”
Nevertheless — and this is the essential corollary — we must insist on maintaining a society and societal discourse which places a premium on values like decorum, eloquence, and mutual respect. We don’t flout the Fred Phelpses of the world by shouting over them or demanding the government muzzle their harsh cries; we do it through applying reason and moral integrity to their claims, then responding appropriately.
This is why I take issue with Rushdie’s unqualified treatment of the term “respect,” and believe it would be clarified and improved by the adjective “automatic.” It’s a crucial distinction: I should not reflexively approve or trust anyone’s opinions over my own, but I should respect them if the evidence demands. This applies most clearly in realms where credentials matter. For example, it makes sense for me to respect a person’s opinion about a subject (i.e. theoretical physics) if that person is an expert in the field (i.e. Steven Hawking), and I am not. I do not have automatic respect, however, because I first evaluate the proof for their claims, and in the case of someone like Hawking, I can weigh the evidence he provides and arguments he adduces in order to make my judgement.
In this sense, I lead with my reason, which becomes a workable heuristic for deciding how I orient myself to my interlocutor and his speech. Of course, even in the case of someone like Hawking, I still bring a healthy dose of skepticism to the table, but it’s a waste of time to approach the claims of charlatans and scholars with equal levels of cynicism.
Does this work when debating non-scientific or ethical questions? The obvious answer is not as well. But I still can and should respect opinions once I have evaluated them. Such an approach avoids the insouciance of a voice that insists, “I DON’T RESPECT YOUR OPINION.” That sounds like squabbling, not debating, to my ear.
I’ve just added the following, among others, to the quotes page:
“We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.” — Abraham Lincoln
Read more from Salman: the first excerpt concerns anti-Americanism, and comes from an essay written immediately following September 11th, 2001. The second is one of my favorite passages from modern fiction, taken from his novel The Ground Beneath Her Feet.