The Cost of Free Speech

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It is fair to say that Salman Rushdie, the widely celebrated author, is one of the world’s foremost champions of free speech. Rushdie, who is perhaps best known for his novel “The Satanic Verses,” has sacrificed and suffered more for his craft than the vast majority of his fellow scribes. First, he survived a fatwa (an Islamic legal judgment) from Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Khomeini called for Rushdie’s assassination after publication of “The Satanic Verses,” which many Muslims believed to be blasphemous.

Consequently, Rushdie spent 10 years hiding in London. After convincing himself that “the world had moved on,” Rushdie moved to New York and returned to the public square. Though he had never stopped writing, during his self-imposed exile Rushdie had not been a highly visible critic of those who try to limit the inexorable march of ideas. Still, he never stopped receiving death threats, some of which were very credible.

Gradually, Rushdie became more and more vocal about the dangers of extremism, especially as regards freedom of speech. Then, in 2022, he was attacked on stage as he was preparing to deliver a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution. Rushdie was stabbed roughly a dozen times. That attack, which nearly killed him, ended up costing him his sight in one eye. Undaunted, Rushdie continues to be a stalwart defender of the human right of uncensored thought.

I sincerely want to avoid being insensitive, but I cannot help but think that Rushdie’s completely undeserved impairment stands as a metaphor regarding the complexities of freedom of expression. Those who would go to great lengths — including the commission of violence — to silence voices with which they disagree are the ones who are truly blind. They cannot seem to comprehend that killing a person does not kill his or her ideas; in fact, doing so often backfires spectacularly.

Yet, despite my strong convictions regarding free speech, I am deeply concerned about it. Specifically, I have watched with great alarm the rapacious spread of misinformation and disinformation, both in America and around the world. While I have long been aware of the troubling popularity of “talk radio,” propagated most infamously by the late Rush Limbaugh, I initially believed that its influence would be relatively limited. I also believed that allowing people to “blow off steam” on the radio would obviate the likelihood of physical violence. I was wrong on both counts.

Unhinged ideas, unrepentant racism, unproven accusations, and untenable conspiracy theories that used to thrive on the fringes of society have painstakingly made their way into the conservative mainstream. Moving beyond the AM dial, we are not witnessing this phenomenon on television, on social media, and even in the words of powerful politicians.

This isn’t happenstance; it is a concerted effort by a cadre of true believers who fear that a white-dominated America is “slipping away from them.” This became readily apparent during the rise of Donald Trump, as well as during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Replacement theory” and misinformation regarding COVID-19 are related, causing undue distress among vast segments of our population. As the inimitable Steve Wonder has admonished, “When you believe in things that you don’t understand, then you suffer.”

Speaking of replacement theory, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville should have been a wakeup call to every conscientious person who loves America. Sadly, in many cases it wasn’t. The same can be said of Jan. 6. Then again, few motivators are stronger than fear, especially fear of change and fear of losing control — as illusory as the latter can be.

Donald Trump’s efficacy at appealing to his followers’ basest instincts allowed him to surf a wave of existential fear all the way into the Oval Office. Once there, he harnessed that fear into a disastrous conspiracy campaign against COVID-19 preventions and interventions. While Trump deserves the credit for “Operation Warp Speed,” which involved the creation, manufacture, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, he also deserves the blame for co-signing disinformation regarding (for example) the use of Ivermectin to treat the virus — which he did not use once he contracted it.

Fortunately, most instances of misinformation and conspiracy theories don’t cost people’s lives; quite unfortunately, misinformation regarding COVID-19 cost tens of thousands of lives (if not more). Moreover, we are now living in the aftermath of the misinformation campaign that led to the failed coup on Jan. 6, 2021. Aided and abetted by the selfish and self-serving former president, Jan. 6 will always stand as a testimony regarding the frailty of democracy.

While I believe that the best response to bad information is good information, the latter increasingly seems to be at a disadvantage. I can’t help but to shudder at the thought of “InfoWars” being more influential in certain quarters than legitimate news outlets. I don’t want to ban extremists from our airwaves; I just want to figure out a more effective way to prevent the very real damage that they inevitably cause.

In the end, I am fully aware of — and fully appreciate — the fact that I am able to express my ideas each week in The Indianapolis Recorder and on various social media platforms. I don’t pretend to be the voice of truth, but I do encourage everyone, everywhere to vet the information they consume (including in this column) by using a variety of sources. We all should look outside our favorite news services, while also abiding by proven tenets of fact-checking and critical thinking. The survival of our nation ultimately depends on our ability to do so.