By Donella Meadows
–March 2, 1989–
Our endless public discussion of the awful Rushdie affair would be more useful if we’d all admit we have something in common with the murderous mullahs. Not that we would issue death sentences against those whose writings anger us. But most of us can readily identify some person or group we would silence, if we could, by means more gentle than those the Ayatollah advocates.
Fundamentalist Muslims want to make the book The Satanic Verses disappear. Fundamentalist Christians hated the book The Last Temptation of Christ, but they didn’t demonstrate in the streets until it was made into a movie. (They know, as Khomeini does not, that hardly anyone reads books unless Ayatollahs happen to denounce them.)
If I could choose the publications the world would be better off without, I’d start with the Dartmouth Review and other smug scribblings that imply, subtly or crudely, that human virtue and political correctness reside only in white, male, American conservatives. Next I’d eliminate all speeches in which members of the military-industrial complex whip up national fears and hatreds — I can’t think of any communications more costly in money and lives than those.
I’d ban pornography. I’d shred the supermarket pulp literature that drugs downcast people with fantasies of superstars, witchcraft, and sex. I’d happily do in all advertising, print and broadcast. It makes people feel ugly and unfulfilled; we’d be better off without it. As long as I’m on this roll, I might as well eliminate sitcoms too, and game shows, soaps, and shallow sensationalist network news.
If you engage in this exercise, you’ll come up with a list different from mine. The point is not my list or yours. The point is that we all have one, and that there is some basis for having one. Much publicly aired speech and writing is worthless, raunchy, destructive. I’m proud of our courageous Western defiance of Khomeini’s violent edict, but I also believe that we Westerners have leaned too far in the direction of freedom of speech and press. Those freedoms have never been absolute, and they never should be.
Yelling fire in the crowded theater is the textbook example of impermissible speech. There are more common examples. Governments do not tolerate speech that advocates their own violent overthrow (and often, unfortunately, do not tolerate speech that merely makes them look bad). We don’t permit people to make unsubstantiated public claims about medicines. We ban advertisements for most harmful, addictive substances. We no longer tolerate overt racism in the mouths of our national leaders.
These limitations are well accepted, and to my way of thinking there should be more of them. The power of words is too strong to let just any tripe loose in the world. Hateful words can tear a community apart. Contemptuous words can crush the spirit of a single person or, if repeated often enough, of a whole people. Lying words can eat away the trust that permits society to function.
Inversely, uplifting words can help people rediscover the strengths within them, which are so easily lost in the modern storm of cynical, crass communication. Some words are sacred, not because they are demonstrably “true” — they exist on another plane than that of scientific demonstration — but because their repetition establishes a meaning for life and a firm moral foundation for wavering minds and souls.
Different peoples have different sacred words, and it has always been one of humanity’s most malicious sports to ridicule the sacred words of others. It’s a sport that shouldn’t be tolerated; in that I agree with the Ayatollah. Of course the Ayatollah’s own contempt for other peoples’ beliefs and his barbaric calls for terrorism disqualify him to be the Moral Censor for Humanity.
So who should be the censor? It certainly shouldn’t be any single individual. It shouldn’t a government, nor a church, nor publishers, nor writers’ associations, nor any institution with a vested interest (which rules out all institutions).
The only entity I’m willing to trust with the critical judgement of public words is the public as a whole, just as the First Amendment says. But I’d like to do much more to empower all members of that public both to choose what they hear and to understand their responsibilities when they speak out.
I’d like children to be raised not only hearing about freedom of expression, but understanding the social consequences of that expression. I’d like them to be awash not in mindless media outpourings, but in wonderful examples of precise, considered, socially uplifting words. I wouldn’t prohibit them from encountering any publication, but I would do everything in my power to encourage them to judge publications and to close pages, turn dials, and eliminate destructive speech by the most powerful means possible — their own refusal to give it their attention.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1989