Monday, January 23, 2012


This is a nice piece by Kenan Malik on the free market in outrage, prompted by the latest threat to Salman Rushdie and his resultant non-appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival.
The consequence of all this has been the creation not of a less conflicted world, but of one that is more sectarian, fragmented and tribal.  As the novelist Monica Ali has put it, ‘If you set up a marketplace of outrage you have to expect everyone to enter it. Everyone now wants to say, “My feelings are more hurt than yours”.’ The more that policy makers give licence for people to be offended, the more that people will seize the opportunity to feel offended. It leads to the encouragement of interest groups and the growth of sectarian conflict.
The whole article is a fine defence of free speech, but I wonder about he way he handles outrage. It is a weird concept. I blame my age, but these days I am outraged by nearly everything. That doesn't mean I want to shoot the outrageous (oh, hang on a second, sometimes it is a bit too attractive an idea for comfort - never mind I can usually manage to control it by some fantasies when I'm cutting firewood with a chainsaw; marvellous therapy, I recommend it). Actually, what we are talking about here is only religion. I have never quite understood why religion outranks world poverty, genocide, mass starvation and the like in the outrage stakes, but apparently it does. Then this isn't really about feeling hurt and offended, it is about power. The manufacture of outrage is how groups wangle themselves into a position where they can 'represent' their communities, seemingly united into a single identity group against their wills, mobilise others and make a play for power. This is a political tactic. And we are blind to it as we would rather it all just went away.

So this is good.
The avoidance of cultural pain has, therefore, come to be regarded as more important than the abstract right to freedom of expression.  As the British sociologist Tariq Modood has put it, ‘If people are to occupy the same political space without conflict, they mutually have to limit the extent to which they subject each others’ fundamental beliefs to criticism.’ What the anti-Baals of today most fear is starting arguments. What they most want is for the world to go to sleep.
Ah yes, sleep. We do sleep. And while we sleep others act. This is very reminiscent of Orwell at the end of Homage to Catalonia, "... the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs". It is all so middle class, so respectable; the stifling politeness of conventional life and the fear of being seen insensitive, racist even. Then there is the nervous embarrassment at the thought of saying something controversial and the submerged fear of violence that leads us to betray those who would rather not be yoked to the heavy burden of outrage.

And who better than the English to succumb - after all, we are always anxious to avoid offence.

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