Sir Salman Rushdie came to campus this past Wednesday evening to deliver a lecture, “On Civility.” The lecture, and the Q&A section immediately following, were well-attended by both the Transy and Lexington communities—tickets for the event, although offered for free, were sold out well in advance of the doors to Haggin Auditorium opening.
Rushdie, in his remarks, used the theme of civility as a gateway into a discussion of American and world history, as well as the current political climate in the United States and across the world. He began his remarks by stressing that civility must be understood as “something wider and deeper than mere politeness,” and that a civil society must before all else be a “society of equals.”
This society is something that we have not achieved, he argued, noting the colonial abuses which have concentrated wealth in a handful of countries. He said that “when the British came to India, it was one of the richest countries on Earth. When they left, it was one of the poorest.” He also identified the continuing dangers of white supremacy and anti-migrant xenophobia as threats to a society of equals.
Rushdie identified a societal breakdown in civility as a downstream effect of a breakdown in public faith in governmental and societal institutions, and a breakdown in public understanding and acceptance of an idea of objective truth.
He warned that a rising tide of incivility was tied to a “rising tide of fascism” around the globe; he identified, among others, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Narendra Modi in India, and Viktor Orbán in Hungary as leaders of this rising tide. He also warned that the rise of the internet and global cultural ties has led to a situation in which “a white supremacist flaps his wings in America, and another such one murders in New Zealand.”
While Rushdie noted that incivility has a “long history” that predates the current political crises, he also warned that the current political climate, in the United States and abroad, was not within what he considered the normal historical bounds of “political insults.”
Rushdie simultaneously insisted that, as a political principle, the First Amendment and the broader principle of free speech be defended, saying that when “we can relentlessly disagree—in peace—that’s freedom.” This often requires the defense of what Rushdie called “uncivil behavior.” To illustrate his point, he said that “if flag burning is a freedom, then so is carrying a Nazi flag.”
Towards the end of the lecture, he had found a middle ground, in which uncivil behavior might be constitutionally protected, but sanctioned quite harshly by civil society. He concluded by admitting that, “I don’t want to talk to bigots. I want to beat them at the ballot box, and marginalize them in every discussion.” He deemed some forms of incivility more acceptable than other forms, such as when those without social power challenge those with it, as opposed to when those with power use the norms of civility to continue to repress those already repressed.
He concluded with remarks on the power of literature to “find our way back to each other, and reestablish the common ground of our society.”
Rushdie is one of world literature’s most prominent authors. In 1981, he won the Man Booker Prize, which is one of the highest honors in English-language literature, for his second novel, Midnight’s Children. He has since published sixteen further novels, several collections of essays, short stories, children’s stories, and other works. He was created a Knight Bachelor by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to literature.
In 1988, his life became the center of a major international controversy with the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. While the novel is a wide-ranging work that deals with issues of identity and migration, two of the middle chapters deal with a crisis of faith experienced by one of the main characters by relating several dream sequences. These sequences draw inspiration from early Islamic history and early Islamic theological disputes, and some Muslims took offense to what they read as blasphemous depictions of the Prophet Muhammed.
The controversy was globally inflamed by political actors. In Iran, the fundamentalist Islamic cleric and head of state the Ayatollah Khomenei issued a fatwā1 A fatwā is a jurisprudential ruling in Islamic legal tradition. While today many Westerners associate the fatwā with radicals and fundamentalists, it is a widely-used term in Islamic theologies of all stripes. calling for his followers to assassinate the author. The fatwā resulted in Rushdie receiving police protection from the British government (he resided in Britain at the time), and in his assuming a fake identity for several years. He has since written a memoir of that time, titled Joseph Anton, after the alias he used.
Rushdie has written in the past that the controversy began and was sustained for political reasons, saying specifically that Khomeini used the fatwā as a tactic to unify the disparate elements of Iranian government and society at the time, and that both British and Indian politicians used the controversy to court Muslim votes in their respective elections.
The lecture by Rushdie was part of both the Kenan Lecture series and the Creative Intelligence Lecture Series, both sponsored by Transylvania University. Sir Salman Rushdie was the 52nd Kenan Lecturer. Rushdie also met with a group of Transylvania students earlier in the day to discuss literature and his creative process.