Julie Burchill’s cancellation and laughable definitions of freedom

This sort of thing is becoming really tiresome now. I recognise I sound like a broken record but, it seems, it keeps happening again and again.

This time, the miscreant is columnist and writer Julie Burchill. The offended party in question is Ash Sarkar. The misdemeanour is a reference to the age of Mohammad’s first wife and a claim that he is a paedophile. The consequence is Burchill’s forthcoming book on mob mentality, cancel culture and wokeism was dropped by the publisher who, nevertheless, insist they are committed to freedom of speech but that she definitely crossed a line and isn’t free to say that.

But ultimately, the situation is always the same. Somebody says something that someone else doesn’t like. A big flap takes place. Eventually, the person who said it is dropped and calls are made for their head. In this case, their book that was due to be published gets dropped.

Now, of course, publishers are entitled to publish or not as they will. They are free to decide whom they will allow to write for them. It is not specifically a breach of free speech for them to decide they personally won’t publish something. But it is some pretty hard doublespeak to claim, as the publishers did:

We believe passionately in freedom of speech at Little, Brown and we have always published authors with controversial or challenging perspectives — and we will continue to do so. While there is no legal definition of hate speech in the UK, we believe that Julie’s comments on Islam are not defensible from a moral or intellectual standpoint, that they crossed a line with regard to race and religion, and that her book has now become inextricably linked with those views.

The Times (paywall)

So, in the name of free speech, the publisher have determined that something somebody said was actually unsayable. They are, of course, within their rights to drop the author over something she said but they cannot credibly claim to ‘believe passionately in freedom of speech’ if the sole reason for dropping the author was something they freely chose to say. If the comments are not illegal (as they admit) but ‘are not definisible from a moral or intellectual standpoint’ being that they ‘crossed a line’, this is an upfront admission that there are lines to be crossed and speech is not to be free. It is, in fact, to be policed. Again, the publisher has every right to drop the author over the comments, but it would be more honest to insist that they are cancelling the book specifically because they are not wedded to free expression.

Then there are the comments themselves. Ash Sarkar rightly called out an article in The Spectator from 2012 by Rod Liddle that was, at a bare minimum, utterly creepy and – more rightly – a giggle about the author’s professed likelihood of committing paedophilia. The article was, indeed, a disgrace. But free speech is such that even that sort of disgraceful article should be sayable and publishable if someone deems it worth publishing whilst, at the same time, permissible for anyone else to express what they believe it says about the author and express just how disgusting they find it. So far, so free.

After all, freedom of speech is not the right to say what you want without any comeback. Interestingly, those most fond of saying that often seem intent on stopping you from saying what you want to begin with (presumably to save themselves the time of having to comeback on it). Which is what makes what happened next so interesting. In response to Sarkar’s comment about Liddle’s article, Julie Burchill waded in with a question about the age of Mohammad’s wife Aisha. A bit provocative perhaps, the subtext clear enough, but there it is. After a bit of back and forth, Burchill eventually exclaimed: ‘I don’t WORSHIP a paedophile. If Aisha was nine, YOU do. Lecturer, lecture thyself!’ No subtext needed this time. It was this that led to Burchill’s book being dropped.

In response to the book being dropped, Sarkar told The TImes:

I was appalled by Julie Burchill’s comments when I first read them, and it was quite upsetting to see that it’s not the first time she’s made derogatory insinuations about my faith.

There’ve been all sorts of hateful comments from others that have followed, and I don’t think it’s right that ethnic and religious minorities are subject to this kind of abuse just for putting their head above the parapet and offering an opinion. I’m discussing my options for further action with my lawyers.

So, Sarkar feels free to say what she likes about Rod Liddle’s column, and well she should! But she does not think Burchill should be free to say what she wants about the founder of her religion. So much so, that she is clear her opinion ought not to have any comeback. She is even consulting her lawyer so that Burchill (and anyone else who dares) will know that they are not free to express their opinions because she doesn’t like them. Freedom of speech for all, but some are more free than others.

For what it’s worth, I rarely think it is helpful to claim that Mohammad was a paedophile. I think Tom Holland was right about it in this Twitter thread. It is a category error, but such should not be unutterable:

Of course, there is a case to be made that believing such is fine – even for the purposes to establishing the reliability of Aisha as a witness – is somewhat questionable. That is certainly an opinion one might hold. Equally, starting one’s opinion with If the tradition associated with Bukhari is true, then… might be a safer way to state one’s opinion. Likewise, it may or may not be reliable as history at all, but we shouldn’t forget, quite a lot of Muslim people do believe it to be true. With all that said, the opinion – category error or otherwise, helpful or otherwise – should surely be deemed a legitimate thing to say. I struggle to believe anybody would get quite so upset if somebody insisted David Koresh – the founder of the Branch Davidians who were largely killed in the Waco shootout in 1993 by the FBI – was a paedophile. It is unclear why one religious founder might be called out this way while another gets a free pass on that opinion.

It is, therefore, incredible that a publisher can insist it is committed to free speech whilst cancelling a book because of something the author said. They are free to drop whomever they like, but they are taking a clear stance that certain views and opinions should not be uttered. Likewise, that another commentator can insist she is committed to free speech whilst seeking to take legal action against something somebody said is laughable. Worse, she hypocritically insists on saying whatever she likes about an article written by somebody else (an opinion with which I happen to agree) whilst insisting that another opinion related to her comments should not be voiced and must face legal consequences. That there are a large number of people who believe this is some sort of credible commitment to free speech is beyond parody.

Once again, the lesson remains the same: the only guarantee that we will be able to say the things that we want to say is if we are committed to other’s right to say whatever they want to say too, no matter how much we may disagree with it or how offensive we may find it.