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Howard Jacobson speaks out for scepticism

By Index on Censorship / 25 March, 2011

Booker prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson gave the keynote address at last night’s Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards, sponsored by SAGE

The last time I attended this event it was a sit-down dinner. When I was invited to give this address I assumed — I think reasonably – that it would be . . . a sit-down dinner. This isn’t a complaint. . .  I’m not saying you’ve got me here under false pretences, but I am starting to wonder whether I am the reason this is not a sit-down dinner. Either someone saw me eat the last time I was here, and doesn’t want to see me eat again.  Or it was thought I’d make dietary stipulations it would be beyond your ingenuity or finances to honour.

These days, every time I’m asked to make an after-dinner speech — which this isn’t, because there is no dinner — I am also asked where I stand in the matter of pig.  In fact, the Book of Leviticus comes down as hard against lapwing, chameleon and tortoise as  it does against pig, yet no one ever checks to see where I stand on chameleon. Only ever pig.  Do people hear my name and automatically conjure up pig?  Anybody would think I’m a banker. . .  Though if any of you are thinking of calling me a banker, be warned that I’ll be taking out a super-injunction.

I like this idea of getting the law to stop people calling you what you are.  “Call me a comic novelist again and I’ll see you in court!”  Does it then follow that we can get the courts to call us what we aren’t?  I’ve always fancied being described as a great Christian thinker and humanitarian — a great, tall, Christian thinker and humanitarian, wise beyond my years, beautiful beyond the power of words to describe, and wonderfully lacking in neurosis when it comes to what I eat.  Can I sue whoever refers to me in any other terms?

Can I sue anyone who refers to me at all?  Can I take out an injunction against any person who claims to know me, to see me, to have seen me, or to be aware of my existence?  Can I take out an injunction against the promulgation of the idea that I exist?

I feel a novel coming on: the story of a man who goes to law to prevent anyone putting him into words. Words — ladies and gentlemen. It’s not just writers who are the enemy now —  it’s language itself.

We should be flattered, we who deal in language.  Clearly, we wield greater power than we know. Our criticism stings, our derision maddens.  Our sacred calling, to hold nothing sacred, is under threat — it is always under threat – but every time a court attempts to gag us,  or come to that the court of easily swayed public opinion attempts to gag us: someone’s hurt feelings, someone’s outraged sensibility, someone who is offended, as though the fact of being offended somehow confers the right not to be — every time the state steps in to have us silenced, as in the case of some of those we honour tonight, in comparison to whom most of us live the life of Reilly — every time someone would have us silenced, the power we possess is acknowledged.

For our part — we who possess that power – we must not exempt ourselves from the universality of our scorn.  If nothing’s sacred, then we aren’t sacred either. Nor, by the same logic, is any principle. “Objection, evasion, cheerful mistrust, delight in mockery,” Nietzsche said, “are signs of health.”  “Everything unconditional,’ he went on, “belongs to pathology.”  So we are trapped in a contradiction of our profession’s making.  Mockery — sacred; unconditional attachment to mockery — pathological.

Leonard Cohen’s great song in praise of imperfection says something similar:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
THAT’S HOW THE LIGHT GETS IN.

A crack in every ideal; a crack in every belief system; a crack in everything we hold too dear.

It is essential, I believe, that we don’t debase the currency. Not every whistle blower blows for the greater good.  Not every secret is malign. We have no inalienable right to know that a footballer is having an affair – unless he keeps missing penalties, or unless the affair he’s having is with our wife, and even then there’s an argument for our not being told.  “In human relations,” Graham Greene once wrote, “kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.”   The public sphere, however, is different; the public sphere requires that we be less considerate.  Though even then, we are so much more deadly when we pick our target and take careful aim.

And it matters that we are deadly —  not only when it comes to state deceit around the world, but when it comes to our own domestic tyrannies — the tyranny of like-mindedness, sanctimony, unyielding conviction of rectitude, and the daisy-chains of villainy that go with political alignment.  It should not be in the name of party or agenda that we speak out; just scepticism. Nothing is wholly true, nothing is wholly right.  And whoever is offended when we say that . . . deserves to be.

If this were a sit-down dinner — which it isn’t — I would raise a glass to that — “To scepticism!” And just in case you’re worried about it for next time — yes, I do eat pig.  Pig’s brain, oyster and chameleon bagel – there’s nothing like it.

On with the evening.  You do wonderful work.  You let the light in.

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