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Guest Post: The Ethics of the Insulted—Salman Rushdie’s Case

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Written by Hossein Dabbagh – Philosophy Tutor at Oxford University


We have the right, ceteris paribus, to ridicule a belief (its propositional content), i.e., harshly criticise it. If someone, despite all evidence, for instance, believes with certainty that no one can see him when he closes his eyes, we might be justified to practice our right to ridicule his belief. But if we ridicule a belief in terms of its propositional content (i.e., “what ridiculous proposition”), don’t we thereby “insult” anyone who holds the belief by implying that they must not be very intelligent? It seems so. If ridiculing a belief overlaps with insulting a person by virtue of their holding that belief, an immediate question would arise: Do we have the right to insult people in the sense of expressing a lack of appropriate regard for the belief-holder? Sometimes, at least. Some people might deserve to be insulted on the basis of the beliefs they hold or express—for example, politicians who harm the public with their actions and speeches. However, things get complicated if we take into consideration people’s right to live with respect, i.e., free from unwarranted insult. We seem to have two conflicting rights that need to be weighed against each other in practice. The insulters would only have the right to insult, as a pro tanto right, if this right is not overridden by the weightier rights that various insultees (i.e., believers) may have.

Are we justified to always practice our right to insult people without limitations? Certainly not. Even if we have the right to insult people, we don’t have the right to damage their existence and harm them directly. We should separate their “beings” or personhood from the content of their beliefs. We certainly do not have the right to issue death threats to people, knowingly falsely accuse someone of something, or directly provoke others to harm an innocent person. The dictates of civility limit the insulter to exercise their right to insult people in any shape they desire.

Are we justified in exercising our right to insult in the absence of countervailing reasons? We might have a strong moral reason to defend the right to insult. Because if we categorise the right to insult under the right to freedom of expression, there is a significant chance that without freedom of expression, we will end up living under tyranny’s oppression. Living under tyranny is an immense systematic harm and structural injustice, weightier and more significant than the collective psychological harm individuals might suffer when they feel insulted.

If this argument works, we have a moral reason to keep the right to insult people, although some people might feel insulted. However, in a liberal society, we all should attempt to live together peacefully despite serious disagreements. How can we live peacefully if some citizens feel insulted and harmed? Although feeling insulted or harmed is not necessarily inconsistent with ‘peace’, feeling insulted or harmed might negate peace if the feeling is itself the same thing as being at war or violently oppressed. Researchers suggest that, at least for some people, hearing insults is like receiving a “mini slap in the face”. Is there any remedy to reduce the amount of harm from the insult? After all, we do not want to exclude and marginalise some citizens (particularly minorities) from our society with the feeling of contempt—that they are inferior and insignificant. Let’s look at Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses controversy to qualify this point further. Here is my reconstruction of the controversy.

Suppose you believe I insulted your “parents” in one of my writings.[1] You get upset and attempt to kill me. You are asked, why killing? It is not proportionate; perhaps you could insult my parents in retaliation. It is part of my tradition, you answer. If someone insults our parents, we should kill them.

Should we stop here? Of course not. One might challenge why we should obey our tradition if it is harmful or involves violating others’ most fundamental rights, and we have moral reasons against it. But let’s stop here for the sake of argument.

Let’s now ask why I insulted your parents in the first place. I respond that I didn’t have any explicit intention to insult your parents. What you read in my piece was merely my “dream” and “imagination”. I might have said something about your parents, but I didn’t directly say something insulting to your parents. Anyway, I apologise if I have gone over the red line and made you feel insulted. I should have mentioned from the beginning that what I wrote was just a dream. Please don’t take it so seriously.

You don’t accept my apologies and try to find a way to kill me anyway.

What does this controversy entail? Does it entail that we should not have expressed our dream or imagination? Well, no. We have a pro tanto right to express our beliefs. Still, what if some people feel insulted when we exercise our right to freedom of expression, even if we do not have the intention to insult them? It might be harmful to a liberal society if some citizens feel insulted. They would probably lose their motivation to cooperate with others which in turn gradually makes our society polarised. Here is my proposal to lessen the harm in such situations as much as possible.

We have strong moral reasons to defend freedom of speech unless we use our speech to damage someone’s life directly and defame them. In the above controversy, I did not defame you directly. Perhaps I should have warned you about my “dream” had I known you are so sensitive about your parents. But you should also work on your zealous passion or love for your parents. It is not wrong that someone loves their parents but to love one’s parents feverishly (such that this love provokes violent tendencies when one believes that one’s parents are insulted) might not sound so defensible. You must boost your psychological maturity by ignoring people you think disrespect you. Feeling insulted derives from your expectation most of the time. If you expect that everyone wants to insult you, you will get insulted easily on many occasions. Not everyone wants to disrespect you. Expecting everyone to always respect your parents, even in their dream, is too demanding. It would also be wise to give people the benefit of the doubt. Although you think that I might be insulting your parents, it is ethical to consider the potential good side of my intention, too—that I did not really intend to insult you.

However, what if I did insult you? What if you have a strong belief and direct evidence that I actually disrespect you? Even if someone explicitly and unquestionably insults you or your parents, this does not warrant a violent response. Although feeling insulted is harmful, we should not respond with physical violence. We have the right to insult in return, granting that we do not abuse our right, for example, to defame and advocate murder. It is our pro tanto right to insult those who insult us, but we are not justified to assault them.

One might object that this is not a healthy society—that you insult me, and I insult you back! Well, it might be true, but with two considerations: First, such a society is more liveable than a society where people might injure each other when they hear insults. It is not an ideal society, but at least the amount of harm in a metaphorical sticks-and-stones society is significantly less than in a society with real sticks and stones. Second, although we have the right to justifiably insult those who insult us, it is not our duty to do that. It is our choice to use our rights—one might decide not to use his right on some occasions.

Let me finish with a philosophical point I borrowed from Ibn Arabi, a 12th-13th-century Andalusian Muslim Sufi mystic philosopher. In his classic, The Bezels of Wisdom, Ibn Arabi reads the famous story of Abraham and Ishmael. In one interpretation, the story narrates that God visits Abraham in his dream and orders him to sacrifice his son. Ibn Arabi argues that dream (ruʾyā) belongs to the world of imagination (ḥaḍrāt al-khayāl). Whatever belongs to the world of imagination is subject to interpretation. It would be wrong, hermeneutically, to read someone’s dream literally and find its correspondence in reality. In Ibn Arabi’s view, Abraham was wrong when he took his dream literally and tried to sacrifice his son. Abraham must have interpreted his dream instead.

What we learn from Ibn Arabi is we are all Abraham in this world, immersed in the ocean of interpretations. It is our moral duty to exercise our metaphorical cognitive capacity when we are faced with intellectual works, let it be a novel, caricature, or something else. Conflating metaphorical with literal thinking or reality with imagination seems implausible and might even be dangerous. Let’s be less confident in our beliefs and seek alternative interpretations.

I hope I didn’t insult anyone in this article—if you feel I did, I am open to any insultations!


[1] I used “parents” as an analogy: prophet as a loving parent.

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5 Comment on this post

  1. As I mentioned in a comment on another blog regarding this tragic piece of history, I read Rushdie’s book years ago. Not being of the Islamic faith nor knowing much about it, I could not see what all the fuss was about. It could have been a piece of postmodern sci-fi for all I knew. People kill others for far stronger motives than so-called insults. Having said that, my fear goes to deeper concerns. Excess, extremism and exaggeration are rampant propositional attitudes now. As illustrated by Davidson years ago, belief, of any kind, is also in this class of human emotional attachment. I think the growth of the three Es has some foundation in radical cults and other religious and political movements, as some experiences have implied over the last fifty years. Freedoms we value in a western culture are considered blasphemous elsewhere. I have to think that Mr. Rushdie knew there would be a risk to publishing the book. He may have thought it smaller. I don’t know. I hope he recovers. A totality of circumstances causes me to worry about all of this, speculative as it may be.

  2. When confronted with beliefs that have an interest in converting us, or in some cases, that deem us worthy of punishment for not sharing that belief, our right to disagree with that belief should not be questioned. This contradiction may be perceived as mockery and of course has the potential to offend the person being mocked. But doesn’t the belief that we are liable to punishment offend us even more? I often feel that those who defend the right of Muslims to be offended by critical portrayals of their religion, and even sympathise with violence on their part, are deliberately omitting an important part of the discussion. The violence is namely often perceived by the perpetrator as the execution of that punishment.

    It is all very well to suggest a weighing of arguments, but this is only done by people who are prepared to listen to the views of others, not by die-hard believers who are prepared to pass judgement on those they believe are mocking them. The fact that Mr Rushdie wrote a book exploring an aspect of the Muslim faith that is largely ignored, and that was deemed heretical by an authority, and he was given a death sentence, shows that the willingness to weigh things up was not present in his accusers. Therefore, it is a one-sided argument that such aspirations to proselytise the world shouldn’t be mocked or contradicted.

  3. Well-said, in my opinion. I remember Hitchens’ assertion regarding religion poisoning everything. I did not agree, but some would argue the distinction I drew was thin. My conclusion, in this and all cases is that it is not religion that poisons things, but the things that humans do in the name of religion. Your analysis appears to at least partially concur.

  4. I agree that freedom of speech has many perspectives and different geographical variations in comprehension. Case of Julian Assange and of Edward Snowden are examples where freedom of speech was handled with an iron fist. The same is the case when one questions the credibility of the holocaust or believes the event is presented as inflated.

  5. Some cultures believe in freedom. Some faiths assert that freedom is laudable, so long as it has certain limitations…an either this or that, amounting to censorship. Western culture accepts that freedom extracts a price;that free-speech has consequences. For the most part, those consequences do not include murder. This means that some prohibitions will not fit all circumstances. This is something like what we used to call a Mexican stand off. I still don’t know why Mexicans were singled out.

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