Salman Rushdie: ‘You have to accept a certain level of disrespect’

Dalkey debate covers topics from death threats, Edward Snowden and Fr Ted

‘You have to accept a certain level of disrespect,’ author Salman Rushdie argued at a lively debate on the freedom of speech at the Dalkey Book Festival this afternoon. File. Photograph: Jeremy Suttton-Hibbert/Getty Images

‘You have to accept a certain level of disrespect,’ author Salman Rushdie argued at a lively debate on the freedom of speech at the Dalkey Book Festival this afternoon. File. Photograph: Jeremy Suttton-Hibbert/Getty Images

Tue, Jun 24, 2014, 11:06

“You have to accept a certain level of disrespect,” author Salman Rushdie argued at a lively debate on the freedom of speech at the Dalkey Book Festival on Saturday.

Chaired by journalist Olivia O’Leary , who described her own experience of receiving a death threat from the IRA, the event covered a range of topics from Edward Snowden to Sinn Féin, terrorism, self-censorship and even Father Ted.

“What would a respectful political cartoon look like?” Rushdie asked the audience in the packed Town Hall in Dalkey.

Comedy and political satire only work, Rushdie added, because “they’re rude to people”.

Dismissing all the “fuss about the Danish cartoons” - which caused a wave of violent protests in 2005 - he differentiated between criminal acts, such as the fatwa, and comedy that causes offense.

The rise of the “outrage industry” was highlighted by Rory Sutherland, who also sat on the debate panel and was described by O’Leary as the “quintessential ad man”.

Chairman of Ogilvy, one of the world’s most influential advertising companies, Sutherland described how too often “slightly offensive comments” are indulged , giving an example of an ad that was withdrawn because it was “offensive to people with bee sting allergies”.

He also told a story of how, when it was questioned whether a particular TV ad could be seen as offensive to the Amish community, someone quipped: “Well, they don’t have televisions.”

Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole, who was also on the panel, argued in favour of “legitimate restrictions” on expressions of extreme or sectarian hatred. “You do have to draw these lines,” he said.

Rushdie took the view that “freedom is indivisible... you have it or you don’t,” he said.

“Reprehensible ideas don’t disappear if you make them illegal,” Rushdie argued, adding that “by driving them under the carpet you might feed them, or make them taboo ... I’d rather know the racist in the room.”

Sutherland described how immigration became “undiscussable” on the BBC for a few years because people were afraid of causing offence.

“Some debates which should be multi-faceted are reduced to economics,” he said, explaining how open, free debate about cultural and racial diversity became restricted into the terms of economics, or what immigrant groups could contribute to GDP.

How do you confront the threat of violence? This was a question that ran throughout the discussion from Rushdie’s fatwa to the “minor form of violence” described by O’Toole that was inherent in writs issued to journalists by people who do not like what was written about them in newspapers.

Turning to Sinn Féin, O’Leary argued that the Section 31 ban on members of Sinn Féin speaking in public ultimately prolonged violence in the North, because it insulated the group from proper challenges. Instead of open discussion about alternatives to violence, they were isolated and remained entrenched in their viewpoints.

The fascinating debate could have continued late into the evening and the early hours, with many in the audience eager to ask questions.

And it wasn’t all hard talk.

When asked by O’Leary if he thought he sold more copies of Midnight’s Children because of the Fatwa, Rushdie replied, with a smile: “No I always sell 10 million copies of my books.”

See dalkeybookfestival.org