Of all the names that signed the open letter published this week in Harper’s magazine, warning against a growing illiberalism of debate, Rushdie’s was the most interesting.
Other high-profile signatories included Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, John Banville, JK Rowling and Gloria Steinem.
The letter expressed anxiety that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted” and that “while we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also speaking more widely in our culture”.
This was expressed through “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”, they said.
The reaction to the letter – which was really an affirmation of liberalism, free speech and tolerance – was swift.
Much of it reiterated, without irony, the points about censoriousness its authors were trying to make.
Some people made the valid point that one person’s “cancel culture” is another person’s critique; that the vigorous criticism, including ridicule, of a person’s ideas or art, does not amount to a crushing of free speech. That freedom of speech is truly threatened when states silence dissent with force, not when people’s feelings get hurt on the internet.
Look at Hong Kong right now, not Sydney or New York or the boundless plains of Twitter, if you want to see what real threats to free speech look like.
Which brings us back to Rushdie.
He has experienced state censorship and death threats. He risked his life for his artistic freedom.
Yet he still thinks the social media-enabled phenomenon of public shamings and cancellations is pernicious and suffocating to artists like himself.
And that its consequences will result in risk aversion among artists, which equals the death of any real creative questing.
Journalists, writers and artists may not fear for their lives, but they might fear for their livelihoods and reputations. They may fear their work will be labelled “problematic” before its artistic worth is even considered.
Rushdie’s support for the letter suggests that while there are obvious differences between a state-sponsored fatwa which inspires terrorist murders, and, to take one recent example, the vicious internet trolling of a food writer who tweeted something snobby about a popular celebrity – it is possible to condemn both things. To admit, even, some relationship between the two.
What happens on the internet is not what happens in society, and the pace of social change as expressed by Twitter and other platforms has not been matched by real change in the institutions which most affect people’s lives.
Does it matter, really, if an artist takes a reputational hit for producing an incorrect work, when our society’s most powerful institutions – parliament, the judiciary, and the boardroom – are still so unrepresentative, and so resistant to change?
It does matter, just as it is a mistake to set those two causes up in competition with each other. Actually, they are in deep and intense conversation with each other.
The Harper’s letter represents the moment the forces for moderate liberalism realise they have been outflanked.
To their left, at the extreme, is a set of principles and orthodoxies that they could try to play along with, and may have some sympathy for, but which, they fear, they will eventually fall foul of themselves.
To the right is the kind of entrenched structural power and inequality they oppose in principle.
The result is the increasing alienation of a large chunk of the middle.
They may not fear death, like Rushdie did.
But they will fear ostracisation by their professional peers, public shame, social media intimidation, and real-world consequences like the loss of reputation, the inability to land an employment contract, or disinvitation from cultural festivals.
That is even leaving aside the question of personal vulnerability – some people can shake off an internet shaming or a newspaper campaign against them.
For others, it will send them into a spiral of anxiety they find difficult to recover from. You know who those people mostly are? Women. Another large chunk of them will be from the vulnerable groups whose voices social media has worked so beautifully to raise up.
Do we want to foster a society where it’s only possible to be artistically or intellectually brave if you have wealth or privilege to fall back on?
And so this perverse obsession with calling out “problematic” individuals reaches its end point – a schoolyard game where the popular kids make the playground such a nasty place to play, that the more sensitive kids pack up and go home.
Others are turned off by the silliness of it all. Still more fail to engage in the first place, because they see nothing there that appeals to them.