Thursday, April 1, 2010

Written in haste, written in awe

of Philip Pullman, on censorship and free speech. This just shows the power of an intelligent and articulate writer stating his credo. It's good enough to eat. In fact, good enough to requote here. Pullman was taken to task for the offensive title of a recent work. This is his reply:
"It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don't have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don't have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That's all I have to say on that subject." 
 At which point, all right thinking webizens are on their feet, clapping and cheering.

Such precisely controlled and focused passion in an off the cuff comment: marvellous. And, most importantly of all, stopping as exactly the right place. An example to us all: every paragraph should carry exactly one payload.

Sorry, notional readers: I have some way to go, I fear.

But ...

You don't have to read a book for it to challenge your belief: just knowing it exists is enough. (In fact authors frequently whine that their critics should have read their work before complaining.) And you cannot protect yourself from finding out that it exists. From that point on, Pullman is simultaneously and falsely humble and arrogant.

On the one hand, he is offering the remedy of an argument. Well thanks, but no thanks. Defending myself against someone of his calibre is not really a starter. This is like a tenth dan Wing Chun master saying, "I have the right to try and mug you and you have the right to defend yourself". His answer proves it. When challenged by an ordinary mortal, he nukes them with his credo and moves on.

The implication is that you don't suffer real damage if your beliefs are weakened: that your credo is worth less than your credit card. But many inarticulate people rely on a simple faith to guide them through life. Chip away at that and they lose direction and momentum. This is real harm: to the good they can do in the world and to the living they can make for their families.

On the other hand, he assumes a God given (oops, possibly not!) right to tell us what to believe.

This is beginning to sound like an argument for censorship. It isn't.

Free speech and open argument do real damage, but in the end they are the safest way. People like Pullman are our best hope. What they write is important, can do good and can hurt people. So they need to take responsibility. "Well, no-one needs to read me so I can write whatever I please" is an arrogant cop-out.