The self-muzzling of the free world

The culture of censorship exerts its insidious influence not only in preventing expression, but compelling it. Its perverse effects can be seen not only by what we don’t say, but sometimes in what we do. In 1990, Rushdie published an essay entitled “Why I Have Embraced Islam.” It read exactly like the hostage note it was. Understandably desperate and no doubt suffering from a severe case of cabin fever, Rushdie avowed “there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his last Prophet” and promised not to publish The Satanic Verses in paperback. “It was deranged thinking,” he confessed nearly two decades later. “I was more off-balance than I ever had been, but you can’t imagine the pressure I was under. I simply thought I was making a statement of fellowship. As soon as I said it I felt as if I had ripped my own tongue out. I realized that my only survival mechanism was my own integrity.”

Across the literary, political, and cultural landscape, a phenomenon similar to Rushdie’s false profession of faith is occurring, as a tiresome conformity and herd-like mentality takes hold. In 1978, the Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel published his seminal essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” To explain the stultifying effects of Communism on the individual, he relates a story of the greengrocer who puts a sign in his shop window proclaiming, “Workers of the World, Unite!” The grocer doesn’t believe the Marxist credo. Rather, he displays the sign “because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be. If he were to refuse, there could be trouble.” The sign, Havel writes, conveys the following message to passersby and society at large: “I, the greengrocer XY, live here and I know what I must do. I behave in the manner expected of me. I can be depended upon and am beyond reproach. I am obedient and therefore I have the right to be left in peace.”

So much of what passes for journalism and political conversation today mimics the pathetic self-abnegation of the greengrocer. People are constantly writing and saying things of highly dubious merit — “Hannah Gadsby is funny,” “Islam is the religion of peace,” “Trans Women are Women,” “’Black Panther’ deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Picture” — as if they were religious incantations.