And what a week it was. Not 48 hours after Rushdie's appearance, Stanford's Students for an Open Society raise the stakes by welcoming Flemming Rose. Rose is cultural editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, and responsible for commissioning the controversial Muhammad cartoons, published on 30 September 2005. The ensuing controversy (including loss of life) is well documented.
A soft-spoken, even monotonous, Rose spoke for the good part of one hour, his pain and frustration palpable. He defended his decision to commission the drawings by offering a long list of incidents of self-censorship in Europe "caused by widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam." Examples included the inability of a Danish children's book writer to find someone to illustrate a new book about the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Three people turned down the job for fear of consequences. Another involved the request of European translators of a book critical of Islam not to have their names appear alongside that of the author, a Somalia-born Dutch politician who has herself been in hiding.
The idea of commissioning the drawings, he wrote in an Op-ed for the Washington Post (19 Feb 2006), and as he explained to us that evening, "wasn't to provoke gratuitously - and we certainly didn't intend to trigger violent demonstrations throughout the Muslim world. Our goal was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter."
So Rose, and his Jyllands-Posten, decided to adopt the journalistic principle of "Show, don't tell" and invited various illustrators to picture Muhammad "as you see him." In publishing the 12 cartoons, Rose wrote: "The modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech, where you must be ready to put up with insults, mockery and ridicule."
Unsurprisingly, Rose's presentation generated mixed reactions - and rather a lot too. The issues of right to free speech and self-censorship are complex and I have no particular expertise in this field. However, I do wonder to what extent we have "duties" as well as "rights" - in Rose's case a duty to protect those more vulnerable?
To mind comes a short essay by Jonathan Sacks. In it he reflects on the nature of "rights" and "duty" based cultures. Rights-based cultures, he argues, reduce us to a state of dependency, where we make claims on others, assuming they have the power to meet our inalienable demands. Its origins are honorable, aimed at protecting ordinary individuals from the power of the state. A duty-based culture, on the other hand, asks us to give and to be sensitive to the needs of others - with the possibility of creating a healthier and happier society based on giving rather than demanding.
So which has the higher priority? When, if ever, does duty trump right? Does our right to free speech entail the duty of others to respect whatever we choose to print?
It's something I've often wondered about in writing The Last Amateurs. The book is brutally honest in many respects - not least where it concerns myself (and not always flattering). There have been occasions, however, where I felt that my duty to protect the athletes, coaches and club was more important than my right to free speech. Sometimes this meant removing sections that would have seriously compromised individuals. Where this self-censorship risked damaging the narrative (i.e. by narrowing the window on life inside the Cambridge University Boat Club), I compensated by writing myself into the story, for instance to highlight the sexually charged, masculine nature of the high performance sports. The alternative - an expose without limits - would not have added much in terms of substance, but would almost definitely have caused hurt or offense. (I am well aware of individuals that are still less than excited about the publication of this book, not least for its candour.)
Given the long series of questions, I didn't have a chance to ask Rose one of mine. I would have liked to have asked him if, given what he knows now, he would have done it again.