War. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing (woah-oh-oh-oh…). Sure, that might be the popular refrain from Edwinn Star’s 1970 hit, but it’s also the sentiment shared by author and intellectual Salman Rushdie. Rushdie explains that public discourse has become far too personal, and that people too often conflate their feelings with their beliefs. This leads to a polarized climate wherein neither side wants to back down… something anyone observing today’s politics might be familiar to. Salman Rushdie’s latest book is The Golden House.
Salman Rushdie: Look, I’m not an advocate of a political violence even in virtuous causes, so I’m not particularly a fan of the Anti-Fa or Black Bloc or those things, but there is no moral equivalence between neo-Nazis and people gathering to oppose them. There simply isn’t. You can’t say that people standing up against Nazism, white supremacy and racism are the same as the people who are in fact white supremacist, neo-Nazis and racists. The moral equivalence doesn’t exist and I think everyone, except the occupant of the Oval Office, can see that.
And I’ve always thought that the great thing, and I think this is exactly where [Richard] Dawkins comes out, is that you have to make a distinction between ideas and people, and that it’s perfectly legitimate to express even vehement dislike of ideas and of belief systems, but it’s not acceptable to turn that into bigotry against people who are part of those belief systems.
So you have to protect the person but not protect the ideology. I think the nature of intellectual activity is that ideas are up for discussion, and if I don’t like your ideas it’s entirely proper that I should say so. But for me to treat you in a bigoted fashion because I don’t agree with you is not acceptable.
So if you think the world is flat, and I think you’re an idiot, it’s okay for me to say that.
So I think we have to retain that ability to be able to have open discourse about ideas and not to become afraid that we’re offending somebody, because actually the open, intellectual discourse... it often offends people.
I remember once being invited to a lunch at MIT, a rather humbling lunch because of the kind of two dozen or so people around the table maybe 20 of them had won the Nobel Prize.
And I was very interested the way in which they talked to each other about each other’s ideas—it was pretty much brutal. They would call each other idiots and fools for having certain scientific theories, I mean the most frank language was being used.
I thought this is extraordinary; what are these people going to say about each other after lunch is over? But actually the moment the lunch was over it was obvious that they were on perfectly good terms with each other and they had no hard feelings, and they were perfectly willing to have that kind of very abrasive interchange without taking it personally, and I thought that was really quite impressive. To me that’s the kind of model of the intellectual life: that you could be as abrasive as you like at the level of ideas, but you don’t make it personal.
I also do a bit of adverse writing [advertising?], I do a bit of lecturing around the country and I was not so long ago lecturing in Florida in a town called Vero Beach, which is near Cape Canaveral, and the audience was older, it was very white, it was very conservative, and I would’ve said a very large majority of them had probably voted for Trump.
I have to say they were very civil, very courteous, they heard me out, nobody booed or threw things or walked out—it was a civilized encounter, but there were very strong disagreements.
So in the Q&A, for example, I had said something in my remarks about climate change and a gentleman at the microphone said how I was completely wrong because when I said that all these scientists basically supported my views on climate change that wasn’t right, and then we got into a kind of “yes it is, no it isn’t” thing.
And I tried to say to him that if you think the world is flat it doesn’t make the world flat, the world doesn’t need you to believe that it’s round to be round because there’s what we call evidence that shows us what shape the world is. And I said it seems to be the same is true of climate change.
So we had this kind of—I mean there was another gentleman who basically said, “How can you believe that the New York Times isn’t just lying to you everyday?” So in a way I was actually quite encouraged by the conversation because it was extremely frank, but it was also within the bounds of civilized conversation, so it was opposite sides actually talking to each other. And I thought, “Well, maybe it’s a good idea to do more of that.”