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Fintan O’Toole: No one was forced to read The Satanic Verses or watch show by notoriously offensive comedian

What does freedom of expression mean in a world where being made to feel uncomfortable by a book or a performance can be presented as an innately bad thing?

Last Saturday, just after the attack on Salman Rushdie in New York state, a theatre in Edinburgh cancelled the second of two shows at the Fringe Festival by the comedian Jerry Sadowitz. It did so, it claimed, because many members of the audience at the previous night’s performance “felt uncomfortable and unsafe to remain in the venue”.

At most levels, these events have little in common. Having a show cancelled is not remotely like having someone allegedly try to murder you on stage. Even to use the word “unsafe” about a comedy act seems, in the context of what had happened to Rushdie, rather silly.

Yet the same basic question arises in both cases. What does freedom of expression mean in a world where being made to feel uncomfortable by a book or a performance can be presented as an innately bad thing?

The strange thing about the Sadowitz story is not that some members of his audience were offended by what the venue called material “extreme in its racism, sexism, homophobia and misogyny”. It’s that anyone went to a Sadowitz show expecting anything else.

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It points to a deep confusion in the democratic world about how free expression is supposed to work

Being offensive is what he does. Anyone who chose to book a ticket and pay good money for it must have known that. You don’t go to a Sadowitz gig by mistake, thinking that you’re about to attend a prayer meeting.

This is what makes the cancellation of Sadowitz disturbing. It suggests that even when people freely choose to subject themselves to offensive material, they must be protected from their own consequent feelings of discomfort.

It’s like banning the roller coaster because the ride is scary. It points to a deep confusion in the democratic world about how free expression is supposed to work.

An awful lot of people seem strongly to believe two things at once. On the one hand, they think that Rushdie has a right to publish what he wants, even if hundreds of millions of Muslims claim to be deeply offended by it. And, on the other, think that someone like Sadowitz has no right to make anyone feel “uncomfortable and unsafe”.

The confusion is understandable because the politics of free expression have never been more heavily saturated with hypocrisy than they are now. In the weaponisation of so-called “cancel culture”, the verb “to cancel” has its own peculiar conjugation.

I have absolute free speech. You have no right to offend me. She is disgracefully provocative. We must protect our values from the naysayers. You people are snowflakes. They are trying to silence us.

Just look at the contest to decide who will be Britain’s next prime minister. On the one hand, both candidates pose as libertarians who will carry on the “war on woke”. On the other, both pledge to “crack down” on “negativity” and on those “who are ashamed of our history, who talk our country down”.

The right to free expression will be defended against “wokeness”, so long as it is not used to say anything disobliging about, say, the history of slavery or the stupidity of Brexit. When this double standard is so deeply embedded in public life, it is no wonder that many people find it hard to think in a consistent way about freedom of expression.

To do that we have to start by recognising that feelings of safety and comfort are not useful criteria for judging the legitimacy of either art or public discourse.

Good art is not safe. It never has been.

On the same night in Edinburgh that people were walking out of Sadowitz’s show, I went to see an excellent production of Liz Lochhead’s version of Medea, a play that is nearly 2,500 years old.

Medea is about a woman who murders two adults and then coldly slaughters her own children to get revenge on her faithless husband. Did I feel “uncomfortable and unsafe” watching it?

Damn right I did. If I and everyone else in the audience didn’t feel terrified and distraught, the production would have been a complete failure. We were there precisely to experience those emotions. It would be absurd to cancel the show because we did.

Or think of arguably the most influential piece of journalism in modern Ireland, Mary Raftery’s States of Fear films for RTÉ on the horrors of the industrial school system. If you felt safe and comfortable watching them, you were probably a psychopath.

The most powerful journalism makes us feel shame and anguish. It also makes some people very angry — a lot of Catholics were deeply offended by Raftery’s work.

This is not to suggest that free expression is limitless — a proposition that, in practice, almost no one truly accepts. But it is to suggest that an open society doesn’t just tolerate uncomfortable expression — it needs it.

It is because of that need that democracies create and sustain contexts in which the limits of free expression are purposefully tested. They have, not just safe spaces, but deliberately dangerous ones.

We choose to expose ourselves to the possibility of being profoundly unsettled, maybe disgusted, maybe even outraged

It is context, not comfort, that matters. If Rushdie went to Tehran and burnt a Koran in front of the Ayatollah Khomeini, he would have to take the consequences. If Sadowitz started shouting racist, misogynist and homophobic insults on the street in Edinburgh, the police would have a duty to shut him up.

But a novel is not a public protest, and a theatre is not a street. No one was forced to read The Satanic Verses (we know that Khomeini did not in fact do so) or to buy a ticket for a show by a notoriously offensive comedian.

If we do these things, we must be allowed to take responsibility for our own choices. We are entering into a contract. We choose to expose ourselves to the possibility of being profoundly unsettled, maybe disgusted, maybe even outraged.

Apart from its criminal brutality, the fatwa against Rushdie is an attack on that choice. It seeks to close down the spaces in which democracies test their assumptions, their values, their beliefs about themselves and the world.

In this sense, freedom of expression is ultimately less about the rights of the author or the performer or the journalist than it is about the foundations of democratic citizenship. As citizens, we don’t just get to choose our rulers, we get to choose how, whether and when to experience the danger of emotional and intellectual discomfort.

A book — or a performance or a film — is, as Rushdie put it “a version of the world”. He added the injunction that “If you don’t like it, ignore it, or offer your own version in return.”

The freedom to shun what we do not like, or to invent alternative versions of the world more in tune with our own values, belongs to all of us. But you can’t dislike what does not exist. You can’t walk out of a show that is not on.