Hijab or bust

In an old piece I came across today, Salil Tripathi explains his belief in free speech:

I derived my position not only from Voltaire’s defence of ideas he disagreed with, or Milton in Areopagitica, or John Stuart Mill’s thoughts, but also from my own traditions and thinkers.

The Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore wanted India to awake in that heaven of freedom ‘where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.’ Mahatma Gandhi had said freedom is not worth having if it does not connote freedom to err.

Freedom of expression, then, was not only the product of Western Enlightenment; it belonged to all of us. And it included the right to say something outrageous, something offensive and even something stupid. Speaking to Der Spiegel, Pnina Werbner of Keele University says: ‘There’s a difference between a novel of great merit … and … cartoons that are in many ways trivial, have little artistic merit and are deliberately provocative and gratuitous.’

But who decides artistic merit? What constitutes provocation? In the neat world of academic distinctions, Werbner may be able to separate the two and say, Rushdie yes, cartoons no. But the assassin will target both.

If the priority is to avoid provoking him, we have lost the battle already, for he wants total silence. To take a sartorial analogy, it is like telling women not to wear miniskirts because they’ll inflame passions. There are no half-measures, like checking the appropriate length of the skirt. It is hijab or bust.

Indeed. In discussions with people, I am often tempted to just burst out, “What part of ‘Free Speech’ do you not understand?” I am tired of the ‘but’ people, who will say, “Oh, I believe in free speech but…” and “Hey, I believe in free markets but…”

After such a ‘but’ there is no way back.