Transcript of the BBC’s Reith Lecture 2022
It is a privilege for me to be here today to join in the distinguished tradition of the BBC Reith Lectures. When I was growing up in the 1980s on the campus of the University of Nigeria in Nsukka, I was a very curious child keen to hear every story, especially those that were no business of mine. And so, as a result, I sharpened very early on in life the skill of eavesdropping, a pastime at which I am still quite adept.
I noticed that each time my parents’ friends visited, they would sit in the living room talking loudly, except for when they criticised the military government. Then, they spoke in whispers. That whispering, apart from testing my eavesdropping capabilities, was striking. Why speak in such hushed tones when in the privacy of our living room, drinking brandy, no less? Well, because they were so attuned to a punitive authoritarian government that they instinctively lowered their voices, saying words they dared not say in public. We would not expect this whispering in a democracy.
Freedom of expression is after all, the bedrock of open societies. But there are many people in Western democracies today who will not speak loudly about issues they care about because they are afraid of what I will call, “social censure,” vicious retaliation, not from the government, but from other citizens.
An American student once accosted me at a book reading. “Why,” she asked angrily, “Had I said something in an interview?” I told her that what I had said was the truth, and she agreed that it was and then asked, “But why should we see it, even if it’s true?” At first, I was astonished at the absurdity of the question, then I realised what she meant. It didn’t matter what I actually believed. I should not have said it because it did not align with my political tribe. I had desecrated the prevailing orthodoxy. It was like being accused of blasphemy in a religion that is not yours. That young woman’s question, “Why should we say it, even if it’s true?” illustrates what the writer Ayad Akhtar
has called a moral stridency, “a fierce, perhaps even punitive adherence to the collectively sanctioned attitudes and behaviours of this era.”
To that, I would add, that this moral stridency is in fact, always punitive. We now live in broad settled ideological tribes. We no longer need to have real discussions because our positions are already assumed, based on our tribal affiliation. Our tribes demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy and they abide not reason, but faith. Many young people are growing up in this cauldron afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions. And so, they practise an exquisite kind of self-censorship. Even if they believe something to be true or important, they do not say so because they should not say so.
One cannot help but wonder in this epidemic of self-censorship, what are we losing and what have we lost? We are all familiar with stories of people who have said or written something and then, faced a terrible online backlash. There is a difference between valid criticism, which should be part of free expression, and this kind of backlash, ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and
children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs.
To anyone who thinks, “Well, some people who have said terrible things, deserve it,” no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism. It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is. Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.
No human endeavour requires freedom as much as creativity does. To create, one needs a kind of formless roving of the mind, to go nowhere and anywhere and everywhere. It is from that swell that art emerges. The German writer, Gunter Grass, once reflected on his writing process with these words: “The barriers fell, language surged forward, memory, imagination, the pleasure of invention.”
As a writer, I recognised this intimately. As a reader, I have often felt the magic of literature, that sudden internal shiver while reading a novel, that glorious shock of mutuality, a sense of wonder that a stranger’s words could make me feel less alone in the world.
Literature shows us who we are, takes us into history, tells us not just what happened but how it felt and teaches us, as an American Professor once put it, about things that are “not googleable.” Books shape our understanding of the world. We speak of “Dickensian London.” We look to great African writers like Aidoo and Ngugi to understand the continent and we read Balzac for the subtleties of post-Napoleonic France.
Literature deeply matters and I believe literature is in peril because of social censure. If nothing changes, the next generation will read us and wonder, how did they manage to stop being human?
How were they so lacking in contradiction and complexity? How did they banish all their shadows?
On a calm morning in New York this August, Salman Rushdie was attacked while just about to speak, ironically, on the freedom of speech. Imagine the brutal, barbaric intimacy of a stranger standing inches from you and forcefully plunging a knife into your face and your neck multiple times, because you wrote a book. I decided to re- read Rushdie’s books, not only as an act of defiant support but as a ritualized reminder that physical violence in response to literature can never, ever be justified.
Rushdie was attacked because in 1989, after his novel, The Satanic Verses was published, the Iranian regime declared it offensive and condemned not just Rushdie but all his publishers, to death. Horrors, of course, then followed: His Italian translator was stabbed, his Norwegian publisher was shot, and his Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarashi, was murdered in Tokyo.
Here is a question I’ve been thinking about: would Rushdie’s novel be published today? Probably not. Would it even be written? Possibly not.
There are writers like Rushdie who want to write novels about sensitive subjects, but are held back by the spectre of social censure. Publishers are wary of committing secular blasphemy. Literature is increasingly viewed through ideological rather than artistic lenses. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent phenomenon of “sensitivity readers” in the world of publishing, people whose job it is to cleanse unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words. This, in my mind, negates the very idea of literature. We cannot tell stories that are only light when life itself is light and darkness.
Literature is about how we are great and flawed. It is about what H. G. Wells has called ‘the jolly coarseness of life.’ To that I would add that just coarseness alone will do, it need not be jolly.
While I insist that violence is never an acceptable response to speech, I do not deny the power of words to wound. Words can break the human spirit. Some of the deepest pain I have experienced in my life have come from words that somebody said or wrote, and some of the most beautiful gifts I have received have also been words. It is precisely because of this power of words that freedom of speech matters.
‘Freedom of speech.’ Even the expression itself has sadly taken on a partisan tribal tint. It is often framed, and I will put it crudely, as “say whatever you want” versus, “consider the feelings of others.”
This, though, is too stark a dichotomy. I cannot keep count of all the books that have offended me, infuriated me, disgusted me, but I would never argue that they not be published. When I read something scientifically false, such as that drinking urine cures cancer, or something gratuitously hurtful to human dignity, such as that gay people should be imprisoned for being gay, I desperately long to banish such ideas from the world. Yet I resist advocating censorship. I take this position as much for reasons of principle as for practicality.
I believe deeply in the principle of free expression, and I believe this particularly because I am a writer and a reader, and because literature is my great love and because I have been formed and inspired and consoled by books. Had any of those books been censored, I would perhaps today be lost.
My practical reason, we could also call it my selfish reason, is that I fear the weapon I advocate to be used against someone else might one day be used against me. What today is considered benign could very well become offensive tomorrow, because the suppression of speech is not so much about the speech itself, as it is the person who censors. American high school boards are today engaged in a frenzy of book banning, and the process seems arbitrary. Books that have been used in school curriculums for years with no complaints have suddenly been banned in some states, and I understand that one of my novels is in this august group.
I confess that there are some books I would fantasize about banning. Books that deny the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide, for example, because I detest the denial of history. But what if someone else’s fantasy was to ban a book about the Deir Yassin massacre of Palestinians by Zionists in 1948? Or a book about the Igbo coalminers massacred in Nigeria by the British colonial government in 1949? Above principle and pragmatism, however, is the reality that censorship very often does not achieve its objective. My first instinct, on learning that a book has been banned, is to seek it out and read it.
And so, I would say, do not ban them, answer them. In this age of mounting disinformation all over the world, when it is easy to dress up a lie so nicely that it starts to take on the glow of truth, the solution is not to hide the lie but to expose it, and scrub from it, its false glow. When we censor the purveyors of bad ideas, we risk making them martyrs, and the battle with a martyr can never be won.
I read newspapers from both sides of the political spectrum. I am, by the way, still puzzled that newspapers, ostensible bastions of objectivity, are politically differentiated. And I often say when I am feeling a little sanctimonious, that I am interested in the ideas of people who disagree with me because I believe that it is good to hear different sides of an issue. But the truth is that I am interested in their ideas because I want to understand them properly and therefore be better able to demolish them.
I believe that the answer to bad speech is more speech, and I recognize how simplistic, even flippant, that can sound. This is not to suggest that one should be allowed to say absolutely anything at any time, which to me is a juvenile position, for being fantastical and detached from reality. Free speech absolutism would be appropriate only for a theoretical world inhabited by animated ideas rather than humans.
Some speech restrictions are necessary in a civilized world. After the Second World War, when countries gathered to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, most agreed that “incitement to violence,” should be punished, but the Soviet Bloc wanted to add “incitement to hatred,” citing the Nazis as an example, which on the surface was reasonable. But their opponents suspected, rightly, that “incitement to hatred,” would end up being interpreted so widely as to include any criticism of the government. This raises the question: who decides just how narrow and how clear restrictions should be? The nineteenth century English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, wrote that all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility, and with all due respect to the Pope, nobody is infallible. So, who decides what should be silenced?
Mahatma Gandhi, after he was arrested for sedition, wrote: “Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by law. If one has no affection for a person or system, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.”
Most people would agree. But what about speech that does not directly incite violence but has nevertheless led to deaths by suicide, as has happened with people is so harangued on social media, so insulted and abused, that they take their own lives? I, by the way, use the word ‘violence,’ assuming that its meaning is self-evident. But is it really? For what is to be said of the idea prevalent today that speech does not merely incite violence – the kind of physical act as suffered by Salman Rushdie – but that speech itself IS violence?
The expression, ‘the answer to bad speech is more speech,’ in its beguiling simplicity, also fails to consider a central motif, which is power. Who has access? Who is in a position to answer bad speech with more speech? In arguing for the freedom of speech, one must consider all the limitations placed by unequal power relations, such as a mainstream press owned by fewer and fewer wealthy people, which naturally excludes multiple voices.
Even the definition of speech can be limiting, such as when the US Supreme Court decided, in the case of Citizens United, that money is speech. All those not wealthy cannot then ‘answer back,’ as it were. Most of all, the Social Media companies, with their mystical algorithms and their lack of transparency, exert enormous control on who can speak and who cannot, by suspending and censoring their users, something that has been called ‘moderation without representation.’
Yes, these companies are private but considering the outsize influence they have in modern society, they really should be treated more like a public utility. There are those who think that, because of these sorts of power limitations, we should robustly censor speech in order to create tolerance. A well-intentioned idea, no doubt. But as the Danish lawyer, Jacob Mchangama, has argued: “To impose silence and call it tolerance does not make it so. Real tolerance requires understanding. Understanding comes from listening. Listening presupposes speech.”
For all the nobility in the idea of censorship for the sake of tolerance, it is also a kind of capitulation, an acceptance that the wounded cannot fight back. When an anti-black poster was once displayed on the campus of Arizona State University, the university chose not to expel the perpetrators. Instead, a forum was organized, the poster discussed, and an overwhelming majority of students expressed their disapproval. One of the black students who organized this said, “When you get a chance to swing at racism, and you do, you feel more confident about doing it the next time.”
A troubling assumption underlying the idea of censorship for the sake of tolerance is that good people don’t need free speech, as they cannot possibly want to say anything hurtful to anyone. Free speech is therefore for the bad people who want it as a cover to say bad things. The culture of social censure today has, at its center, a kind of puritanism that expects us to be free of all flaws, like angels, and angels do not need free speech.
Of course, we all need free speech. Free speech is indeed a tool of the powerful, but it is also crucially the language of the powerless. The courageous protests by Iranian women, the ENDSARS protest in Nigeria, where young people rallied against police brutality, the Arab Spring: all wielded speech. Dissent is impossible without the freedom of speech.
The biggest threat to speech today is not legal or political, but social. This is not a new idea, even if its present manifestation is modern. That famed chronicler of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, believed that the greatest dangers to liberty were not legal or political, but social. And when John Stuart Mill warned against the “tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling,” it reads as though he foresaw the threat that orthodoxy poses today. The solution to this threat can only be collective action. Social censure creates not just a climate of fear but also a reluctance to acknowledge this fear. It is only human to fear a mob, but I would fear less if I knew my neighbour would not stay silent were I to be pilloried. We fear the mob but the mob is us.
I want to make a case today for moral courage, for each of us to stand for freedom of speech, to refuse to participate in unjustified censorship, and to make much wider, the boundaries of what can be said. We must start again to assume good faith. In public discourse today, the assumption of good faith is dead and speech is by default interpreted in the most uncharitable way. Yes, some people are not of good faith which, I suppose, is what that modern word “troll” means, but we cannot, because some people do not act in good faith, then decide that the principle of good faith itself is dead. It is instructive to be reminded of American President James Madison’s words: “some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of everything.”
We must start again to make our case, respectfully and factually. We must agree that neither sanctimonious condescension on the left nor mean-spirited hectoring on the right qualify as political arguments. We must insist not only on truth but also nuance.
An argument for any social justice movement, for example, is stronger and more confident when it is nuanced because it does not feel the need to simplify in order to convince.
We must hear every side and not only the loudest side. While social media has re-shaped the traditional power dynamic by giving some access to the powerless, it has also made it easy to mistake the loudest voices for the truest. We must protect the values of disagreement, and agree that there is value in disagreement. And we must support the principle of free expression when it does not appeal to our own agenda, difficult as that may be, and I find it particularly so.
We must wean ourselves of the addiction to comfort. When I first left Nigeria to attend university in the US, I quickly realized that in public conversations about America’s difficult problems – like income inequality and race – the goal was not truth, the goal was to keep everyone comfortable.
And so, people pretended not to see what they saw, things were left unsaid, questions unasked, and ignorance festered. This unwillingness to accept the discomfort that honesty can bring is in its own way a suppression of speech. Some Americans argue, for example, that students today should not be
taught about the racist Jim Crow laws of the 1950s, because it will make them uncomfortable. And so, they prefer the disservice to young people of making them ignorant of their own history.
We must stop assuming that everyone knows, or should know, everything. I was once struck by how quickly an American journalist was fired from her job for saying something racist. Little was made public about exactly what it was she had said, and this not only gave a certain unearned power to her words, but also darkly suggested that perhaps they contained an element of truth. The public was also cheated of its right to hear, and perhaps, potentially learn. What was said? Why was saying it wrong? What should have been said instead? We must demand that people behave on social media only as they would in real life, and we must also demand reasonable social media reforms such as the removal of anonymity, or linking advertising only to accounts with real names, which would provide an incentive to promote voices of actual people and not amoral bots.
What if each of us, but particularly those with voices, gatekeepers, opinion shapers, political and cultural leaders, editors, social media influencers, across the political spectrum, were to agree on these ideas as broad rules to follow? A coalition of the reasonable would automatically moderate extreme speech. Is it naïve? Perhaps. But a considered embrace of naivety can be the beginning of change. The internet was after all designed to create a utopia of human connection. A naïve idea if ever there was one, but it still brought about the most significant change in how human beings communicate.
Sometimes it takes a crisis for a naïve idea to become realistic. President Roosevelt’s New Deal itself was based on ideas that went against the prevailing consensus of the time and were generally considered naïve and impossible. But when crisis came in the form of the Great Depression, it suddenly became possible. Social censure is our crisis today. George Orwell wrote that, “If
large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it.” To that I would add: We can protect our future. We just need moral courage.