Voltaire across the Atlantic

Voltaire across the Atlantic
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First Published: Mon, Nov 26 2007. 12 16 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Nov 26 2007. 12 16 AM IST
At one corner of London’s Hyde Park is a place called Speaker’s Corner, where anyone can stand up and say whatever he or she wants to, about anything, and many in this thriving city take pride in that idiosyncratic tradition as evidence of its commitment to freedom of speech.
And yet, across the park lies the Science Museum, which in mid-October decided to cancel a talk by James Watson, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, because in an interview in The Sunday Times, he said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospects for Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.”
Inevitably, there was a furore, and the great and the good condemned Watson for his views. The board of the state-of-the-art Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US, where Watson has spent decades pursuing advanced research, removed him from his administrative responsibilities, pending further deliberation.
Watson is a known maverick in the scientific community, and he has in the past made provocative remarks. He is not a development or social policy expert. He later clarified his position, saying we do not know enough about how genes determine our capacities in different environments.
That should have been the end of it, and his initial remarks resembled the ramblings of just the kind of people he says are not worth spending time with. His new book is ironically called Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Watson’s faux pas is neither surprising, and, sadly, nor is the ease with which the British establishment has forgotten its old commitment to free speech, because of its new infatuation with multicultural political correctness.
This is hardly the first such instance: The Birmingham Repertory ended the performance of a play called Behzti (in Punjabi, Dishonour) in 2004, after a group of Sikhs attacked the theatre, because the play, written by a Sikh, offended their sensibilities. A year later, British editors congratulated themselves for their restraint when they did not publish the Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammed. In 2006, not to be outdone, Hindu extremists attacked a gallery in central London, which showed the paintings of M.F. Husain, who often paints Hindu deities in the nude. Again, last year, the state stood by, doing nothing, when a small group of middle-aged men succeeded in hounding away the company filming Monica Ali’s acclaimed novel, Brick Lane, from the streets that bears the name, because the protesters felt the book denigrated the Sylheti Bangladeshi community in Britain (in a new twist in that tale, Prince Charles avoided attending the film’s London premiere this month). Cheering the museum for showing Watson the door, London’s ebullient mayor, Ken Livingstone, said Watson’s views were “not welcome in a city like London, a diverse city whose very success demonstrates the racist and nonsensical nature of (his) comments.”
The common thread running through this continued capitulation to mob censorship was sensitivity over religious matters. Now, it has moved beyond faith; it affects other topics, such as race, which is becoming a taboo. It also severely undermines British commitment to free speech.
This is not at all to suggest that Watson’s views have scientific basis. The science of intelligence is disputed; the Herrnstein-Murray hypothesis of intelligence being distributed on a bell curve along racial lines has been challenged; and in the hands of a mass murderer like Hitler, such “theories” can have catastrophic consequences. To be fair, Watson has supported none of this, and in his mea culpa, he has shown how little we know.
Contrast British response to Watson’s remarks with the American reaction to the fulminations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, who has denied not only the Holocaust, but the existence of homosexuals in his country. In September, Columbia University faced considerable political pressure in the US, with many calling on the university to withdraw an invitation made to the Iranian leader. Instead, Columbia went ahead with its invitation, and then, asserting its own values, Columbia’s president, the feisty Lee Bollinger, launched a blistering attack on Ahmadinejad’s record and the values he espouses. In doing this, Bollinger gave a new meaning to the dictum attributed to Voltaire: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
And yet, that’s the test London flunked in October. What makes London’s failure particularly galling is the fact that the same London mayor hasn’t hesitated before hosting the controversial Islamic cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has defended suicide attacks against Israelis, advocated stern punishment of homosexuals and adulterers, and isn’t an enthusiastic supporter of women’s rights. Under Livingstone, London’s intolerance of hate speech is selective. And maybe, therefore, it is time for that monument of free speech, Speaker’s Corner, to close down. Or move to a more appropriate place, such as the Central Park in Manhattan.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Nov 26 2007. 12 16 AM IST