The upshot of these controversies has been a kind of default to a middle position that goes roughly as follows: Fanatics shouldn’t kill people, and writers and artists shouldn’t needlessly offend fanatics. It’s a compromise that is fatal to liberalism. It reintroduces a concept of blasphemy into the liberal social order. It gives the prospectively insulted a de facto veto over what other people might say. It accustoms the public to an ever-narrower range of permissible speech and acceptable thought.
And, as Packer notes, it slowly but surely turns writers, editors and publishers into cowards. Notice, for instance, that I have just described the suspect in Paty’s murder as a “Chechen.” Why? Because it’s accurate enough, and it’s not worth dealing with the choice and precision of a single adjective.
It isn’t entirely clear whether there’s a causal connection between the way so many Western liberals have tried to dance around the subject of religious fanaticism and other encroachments on socially acceptable speech. But the two have moved in tandem, with equally destructive results. Our compromised liberalism has left a generation of writers weighing their every word for fear that a wrong one could wreck their professional lives. The result is safer, but also more timid; more correct, but also less interesting. It is simultaneously bad for those who write, and boring for those who read. It is as deadly an enemy of writing as has ever been devised.