Salman Rushdie, self-appointed poster boy for the First Amendment, is at it again. This time he’s not standing up for free expression on his own behalf, but on behalf of another author, Sherry Jones, whose debut novel about the prophet Muhammad’s child bride had been withdrawn by Random House after consultants warned that its publication “could incite racial conflict.”

Random House is also Rushdie’s publisher, and his response to the news was to send an e-mail to The Associated Press. (I never thought of that; maybe I’ll try it myself.) It read, “I am very disappointed to hear that my publishers, Random House, have canceled another author’s novel because of their concerns about possible Islamic reprisals. This is censorship by fear and it sets a very bad precedent indeed.”

This little brouhaha has been widely reported and commentators have tended to endow it with large philosophical and political implications (the Danish cartoon controversy of 2005 and the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh are often referenced). A story in The Times of London online edition describes it “the latest showdown between Islam and the Western tradition of free speech.” One respondent declared bravely, “I will never buy another book published by Random House,” and added, in a frenzy of patriotism, “We are Americans. We are free to choose what we want to read.”

Well, I guess we are, although that wouldn’t be my definition of what it means to be an American. It is also true, however, that Random House is free to publish or decline to publish whatever it likes, and its decision to do either has nothing whatsoever to do with the Western tradition of free speech or any other high-sounding abstraction.

Rushdie and the pious pundits think otherwise because they don’t quite understand what censorship is. Or, rather, they conflate the colloquial sense of the word with the sense it has in philosophical and legal contexts. In the colloquial sense, censorship occurs whenever we don’t say or write something because we fear adverse consequences, or because we feel that what we would like to say is inappropriate in the circumstances, or because we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. (This is often called self-censorship. I call it civilized behavior.)

From the other direction, many think it censorship when an employee is disciplined or not promoted because of something he or she has said, when people are ejected from a public event because they are judged to be disrupting the proceedings, or when a newspaper declines to accept an advertisement, rejects an op-ed or a letter, or fails to report on something others think important. But if censorship is the proper name for all these actions, then censorship is what is being practiced most of the time and is in fact the norm rather than the (always suspect) exception.

But censorship is not the proper name; a better one would be judgment. We go through life adjusting our behavior to the protocols and imperatives of different situations, and often the adjustments involve deciding to refrain from saying something. It’s a calculation, a judgment call. It might be wise or unwise, prudent or overly cautious, but it has nothing to with freedom of expression. (MORE)


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