If we don’t defend free speech, we live in tyranny

There were numerous killings and attempted assassinations, including the stabbing of the Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi in 1991. Rushdie himself spent many years in enforced hiding, but gradually he came out of his cocoon – the Toronto PEN event being the most significant first step – and, in the past two decades, he’d been leading a relatively normal life.

However, he never missed an opportunity to speak out on behalf of the principles he’d been embodying all his writing life. Freedom of expression was foremost among these. Once a yawn-making liberal platitude, this concept has now become a hot-button issue, since the extreme right has attempted to kidnap it in the service of libel, lies and hatred, and the extreme left has tried to toss it out the window in the service of its version of earthly perfection. It doesn’t take a crystal ball to foresee many panel discussions on the subject, should we reach a moment in which rational debate is possible. But whatever it is, the right to freedom of expression does not include the right to defame, to lie maliciously and damagingly about provable facts, to issue death threats, or to advocate murder. These should be punished by law.

As for those who are still saying, “yes, but …” about Rushdie – some version of “he should have known better”, as in “yes, too bad about the rape, but why was she wearing that revealing skirt” – I can only remark that there are no perfect victims. In fact, there are no perfect artists, nor is there any perfect art. Anti-censorship folks often find themselves having to defend work they would otherwise review scathingly, but such defending is necessary, unless we are all to have our vocal cords removed.