Editorial: Marketplace of outrage
An inclination to censor is supplanting the free flow of ideas
In the more than two decades since the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses the landscape of free speech and censorship, Kenan Malik writes, has been utterly transformed. Where once freedom of speech was seen as an inherent good, a vital corollary to a free society, it is now viewed as a problem, because it entails the threat of offending, and as we all know no one must ever feel offended. Malik is one of our most sensitive chroniclers of the erosions of liberty, and in his typically pithy piece he examines the forces that recently prevented Rushdie from travelling to a literary festival in Jaipur, India, and the “marketplace in outrage” which seems to have supplanted our faith in the free flow of ideas.
Malik’s is, thankfully, not the only voice speaking up for free speech. In his excoriating new book You Can’t Read This Book, Nick Cohen takes a tour d’horizon of the past 20 years and details in particular the many ways in which faith groups have used the language of offence, and the law, to protect their “deeply cherished” beliefs from legitimate scrutiny and criticism. We present his ten-point plan for beating the censors and restoring free speech. It’s an invigorating read.
Cohen’s book is dedicated to the great Christopher Hitchens, who died late last year, and carries as its dedication a Hitchens quote defining our time as an “all-out confrontation between the ironic and the literal mind”. Cohen takes inspiration from Hitchens’ lifelong struggle against the humourless “commissars, inquisitors and bureaucrats”. Hitchens was an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Association, which publishes New Humanist, and a valued supporter of the humanist cause. There was always plenty to argue with in his writing, but that was the point. From Mother Theresa to Iraq and whether women can be funny, he was always trying to provoke. With his anti-religion polemic God Is Not Great he provided a welcome shot in the arm to the atheist cause and an antidote to the timidity and sentimentality that so often neuters debate about faith. In this issue, we offer a list of the ten reasons we’ll miss him on.
Even though we’ve lost our best debater, the debate around the place of religion in society continues. One of the latest salvos has been fired by the bestselling philosopher Alain de Botton, whose new book Religion for Atheists recommends an alternative to Hitchens-style confrontation; why not take the best ideas from religion, and leave all the supernatural guff behind? Sappy or smart? You decide, after you’ve read our interview.
One of de Botton’s more eye-catching proposals is that the university should be reorganised. Rather than departments of French Literature or Social Studies, courses should be reorganised around questions that really matter to people’s everyday lives, like “what is a good life”, and “how to deal with death”. Such proposals will not be to everyone’s taste, but he is far from alone in his diagnosis that there is something seriously wrong with higher education. Laurie Taylor meets Cambridge don Stefan Collini to discuss what has gone wrong with British universities, and how to put it right.
One thing de Botton does not suggest the godless should take from religion is miracles, which is a shame since they can be one of the most entertaining parts. For evidence of this turn to Christina Martin’s jolly “Top 6 Jesus sightings”, where you can see the miraculous appearances of the messiah in everything from a jar of Marmite to an IKEA toilet door.
And for further proof that irrationalism can be fun, see if Elizabeth Wilson can persuade you that Tarot cards, those emblems of occultism, can, like all myths, stir the imagination and illuminate the human mind.