Rushdie On Free Speech

Here’s a post by our pal Jeffery Hodges in which he excerpts some remarks by Salman Rushdie on the subject of free speech. There is also a comment, by someone called “Crude”, that triggered a knee-jerk reaction on my part — but which, as I began to respond, I realized deserved more careful consideration. I’m still thinking about it. Here it is:

Rushdie only supports freedom of speech insofar as he thinks that freedom advances his social and political aims. If you ask him, what if a real freedom of speech would undermine liberal values, make the world more religious and conservative, he wouldn’t be able to process it. To him, you can tell if you have those freedoms properly by whether the very thing he wants to see happen, happens more often.

Even you are similar. You say, “Better to have the bad ideas out in the sunlight where they can be attacked”. But what happens if Freedom of Speech doesn’t make the bad ideas wither and die? What if the “bad ideas” – I wonder what they are – thrive in a Free Speech environment, and the “good ideas” die? Will it be time to call the project a failed experiment?

Anyone can support a supposedly precious freedom when they think it will lead to a world they personally prefer.

The question the comment aroused in me is: are there memes that are so virulent, so dangerous, that they outcompete more virtuous and desirable memes in the arena of free expression?

This has of course been the motivation, throughout history, for the suppression of heresies. But is it still something we should be worried about? Think carefully before you answer.

What does it take for a “bad idea” to defeat a “good idea” in the open market? Highly successful memes, for example the world’s more durable and infectious religions, have been tuned by a long-term selective process to be tremendously contagious, and impressively resistant to attack.

Is free-speech absolutism more dangerous than it seems?


  1. Crude, despite his moniker, raised a good question. I don’t have a ready answer. But I suspect that since some ideologies, e.g., Islam, forbid criticism, then free speech must be a threat.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted November 5, 2012 at 5:54 am | Permalink
  2. Dom says

    Scientific themes will win or lose in the market by profit. No one seriously doubts Newtonian physics anymore, because it leads to advances that Aristotelian physics could not, such as air-travel, etc. In the same way, there are no real creationists anymore, though some say they are — virtually all of them will vaccinate their children or talk intelligently about viruses mutating.

    For bad memes to survive, you need government regulation. For example, education needs to be mutilated so that girls can be shoe-horned into STEM studies, etc.

    Posted November 5, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink
  3. I suspect good ideas or bad ideas get most traction with an army behind them.

    In college, I was assigned Constantine and the Conversion of the West. Christianity was making progress, but the stock didn’t take off until imperial favor was gained.

    This isn’t to say ideas can’t do some good or harm without force majeur, but that they can only go so far.

    Posted November 5, 2012 at 8:39 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    This isn’t to say ideas can’t do some good or harm without force majeur, but that they can only go so far.

    I’m not so sure. There can be memes which are surpassingly dangerous in themselves.

    Take, for example, Darwinism. When Daniel Dennett wrote his excellent book on the subject (which I recommend to you all, by the way), he chose the title Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. He described Darwin’s great insight as a “universal acid” – an idea so powerful, and so corrosive, that no container can hold it. And he’s right: in the century-and-a-half since it burst from its containment in Darwin’s brain, it has eaten through some very strong containers. In many, many brains it has gone on to dissolve, among other things, the foundations of both religion and objective morality.

    Take, for another example, Islam, another extremely infectious meme-plex, and one that is highly resistant to assaults by competing memes.

    Another: radical multiculturalism and non-discrimination, which, as a product of the postwar West, took root in a climate of free competition among political philosophies. For anyone who valued the traditional character of European cultures, this has been an immensely destructive idea, and I have no doubt that if in 1950 you had shown a Belgian, a Swede, or an Englishman what their nations would later become as a result of it, they would think it a very “bad” idea indeed.

    And for a limiting example of how just bad “bad” ideas can get, read this.

    Posted November 5, 2012 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
  5. Dom says

    That’s a great story. Who wrote it? I’m guessing JG Ballard, but the use of “she” instead of “he” doesn’t seem right.

    Posted November 5, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  6. Bill says


    Just a couple of quick notes on your comment. Among philosophers, Dennett doesn’t fair so well, you might want to read some Edward Feser, or our mutual correspondent, Bill Vallicella. A good theologian to read would be Alistair McGrath, who is both a PhD microbiologist and PhD theologian. Michael Ruse has a couple of excellent books out devoted to evolution, one called (I think) 4 Billion Years of Evolution, and the other is a compendium edited by him and Dempski on Intelligent Design. Ruse is a Darwinist, and Dempski is the main protagonist for ID.

    As for the memes of Islam, we are back to Joseph Moroco and force of arms. Islam believes it is its duty to subdue the world by force, not by conviction. The two most successful Christian religions, Pentacostalism and Roman Catholicism succeed by different mechanisms, but neither uses force.

    Ideas survive over the long haul by their ability to meet needs of people. They can sometimes be suppressed for a while, but eventually they crop up again. Crude has a point in the way many people, and he includes Rushdie among them, approach any freedom. It’s fine for them until it is applied to something or someone they do not like. Fear of bad ideas winning is mostly a failure to really believe in the good of ones own ideas or else an inability to answer arguments. The more I read, the more I realize that the defense of good ideas is very strong and is simply not taught. Current example is the ascendency of liberalism, which is due more to the inarticulateness of conservatism since the death of Bill Buckley, than to any inate ability of liberal doctrine to overcome conservative doctrine.

    OK, I’m getting too long and will have to make it a blog post if I continue.

    Posted November 6, 2012 at 6:12 pm | Permalink
  7. This brings up broader point I’ve sometimes wondered about, which is, is freedom a means or an end? Is the good of freedom that through it we’re free to do good things, or is freedom a good in itself? If you think freedom is good in itself you can respond that regardless of whether freedom of speech leads the best speech (and the best ideas) to prosper, it’s still a good thing because, well, it’s freedom.

    Of course I know in theology people tend to say that freedom is good in itself, as a way of answering certain parts of the problem of evil. I think it’s a little bit dubious though — I’m tempted to say that doing good things is better than being free to do them. On the other hand, I have to admit that someone who does good things because he’s free to do them seems slightly better than someone who does good things because he is forced to.

    But what about someone who does good things because he’s (perhaps all unwittingly) forced to and nonetheless desires to?

    Posted November 11, 2012 at 6:21 am | Permalink

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