Moving Past the Tiresome Dead Ends of Free Speech Controversies (or, Ahimsa, Spiegelman’s Maus, and more)

Do you remember the commotion from a few weeks ago over Art Spiegelman’s Maus? When a school board in Tennessee removed his celebrated Holocaust graphic novel from the eighth grade curriculum for including profanity and nudity?

Yes, that commotion.

I have been thinking, and thinking some more about it. With mixed feelings.

My first instinct, you see, was to condemn the removal because it seems to me laughably naïve. Are eighth graders really so tender as to require protection from Maus? Like much reporting on the episode, my first reaction was exasperation.

But then came a second impulse. One that recognized opportunity in the sorry episode, just one more in a long chain of sorry censorship episodes. It occurred to me that this one might, finally, provide us with an opening that I have been seeking for a while–an opening to change the way we routinely discuss “free speech” issues.

Because of the way the school board itself framed its actions, we might finally have the chance to put harm—rather than freedom—at the center of our understanding of free speech and censorship.

I know this move—substituting harm for freedom–sounds dangerous, dangerously like giving in to illiberalism. But hear me out. I have an argument to make—one that I have in fact already made at length in a recent essay (“The Ruse of Freedom: A Comparative Essay on Ahimsa and Freedom of Expression”).

In Cultural Critique ​(#115, Spring 2022)

In the United States (like most liberal Western democracies), censorship is usually approached as an issue of freedom—the freedom of an individual to express herself; the freedom of a society to exchange information without constraint. This freedom is treated as a paramount value in such societies.

But is it? Or, rather, should it be?

Is it really helpful to think of public speech as essentially about freedom? After all, there certainly is another, opposing, value that is also routinely invoked in “free speech” debates: avoidance of harm, or harm-less-ness. Most often, this value is invoked only to be dismissed or else severely curtailed.

Consider John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, so influential in establishing the “free” in free speech. As its title suggests, the essay exalts freedom. It acknowledges the capacity for speech to do harm, but makes room only for material and immediate harm (in a popular illustration, crying fire in a crowded theater) in restricting the freedom to speak.

What would it mean, though, to reverse the Millian hierarchy of priorities and to raise up harm-less-ness over freedom? How would this reprioritization change our debates about free speech?

There is a great ethical tradition that provides answers to these questions—the tradition of ahimsa (in Sanskrit, or avihimsa in Pali). This tradition does not exalt freedom over harm-less-ness. Rather, in it—the acme of the tradition was Buddhist, though the tradition itself is broader—harm-less-ness is paramount, not freedom.

Ahimsa is routinely translated as non-violence but a better rendering would be avoidance of harm, certainly avoidance of giving harm but also of receiving it—that is, a comprehensive condition of harm-less-ness. Buddhist commentators generally understand ahimsa in this way. Unlike Mill, harm here is understood not just in its material and immediate manifestation. Most traditions of ahimsa recognize the capacity of not only deeds but also words and even thoughts to do harm. Hence the especial relevance of this tradition for “free speech” debates.

What would it mean, following the ahimsic tradition, to consider the Tennessee board’s action on Maus as not primarily banning, not as a curtailment of a freedom, but as a form of harm? What would it mean to give priority, in thinking about Maus as well as other targets of censorship, to the tradition of ahimsa over the political traditions that exalt freedom above all else? Ironically enough, the school board itself, by raising the issue of harm to eighth graders, has opened the door to these questions. Further irony: surely by now the evidence is clear that the Millian individualist tradition is unable to guarantee the very freedoms it wants to exalt.

Just to be clear: I happen to think that the removal of Maus from the eighth grade curriculum, rather than the profanity or the nudity in Maus, is the harm-ful act. I am prepared to defend my position via the ahimsic tradition. I am prepared to argue (as I have in the essay I have referred to) that my stance—different than objecting to the banning of Maus, or making a stand on freedom—is useful in moving us past the tiresome dead ends of “free speech” controversies, by which we are roiled week in and week out.

Paradoxically perhaps—but not at all surprisingly—many freedoms that we value would also be valued in the ahimsic traditions I am espousing. After all, the denial of freedom can also be a form of harm. However, any and every freedom would not be placed above the value of harm-less-ness.

And that would be a good thing because it might begin to provide us new ways of thinking about the centuries-old problem of “free speech.”


S. Shankar / Writing About Caste and Poverty: An Interview

An Intellectual History of Global Inequality is a terrific project based at Aarhus University in Denmark. Earlier this summer I was interviewed by them about my work as a novelist and a critic as it pertains to global inequality. I think because of my recent fiction and scholarship on caste and postcolonialism, and because of my work-in-progress, a critical study of representations of the poor in Africa, India and the US. I was in conversation with them about presenting material from that work-in-progress at Aarhus this summer before COVID-19 put an end to all such blissful nonsense. So, I am grateful to them for the opportunity to think through some key questions about global inequality in interview format. What they are doing, how they are trying to impact our understanding of inequality, is tremendous–you should check them out! And if you want to read the interview which covers a variety of topics pertaining to current ways of thinking about inequality and poverty, follow the link below.


S. Shankar / Person-Oriented vs Thing-Oriented Education: Why Now in the Midst of the Twin Crises of COVID-19 and the Racial Justice Uprisings We Need the Arts and Humanities More than Ever

“We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” –Martin Luther King

In a speech at Riverside Church in April 1967, Martin Luther King warned us about thing-oriented thinking. King was concerned about things being exalted over people and, reciprocally, people being converted into things. Not only can thing-oriented thinking not solve the problems of racism, extreme materialism and militarism, in King’s opinion, it in fact contributes to them, makes them flourish. It is worth thinking today, as simultaneously a pandemic and an uprising for racial justice rage, about higher education in the light of King’s words.

Speech at Riverside Church, New York, 1967

Over the last century and across the globe, the thinking King warned us about has given us such “things” as the atomic bomb, emerging markets, and forced sterilizations. Thing-oriented thinking flattens the myriad challenges and mysteries of human life, indeed of all life on earth. It replaces the fluid dynamism of life with the passive inertia of things. Why? Because passive and inert things can be more easily manipulated. They can be ordered, reordered (forcibly sterilized bodies), moved, put in boxes, measured and counted (consumers in emerging markets), made into targets (residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), sliced to manageable size. Things don’t have to be listened to.

Thing-oriented thinking fosters the reductive notion that the world is a collection of problems meant to be confronted by technical and technological solutions. (Frankenstein anybody?) It is the naïve and dangerous notion that the world is an ever proliferating collection of wildly diverse nails for which we need to invent ever more ingenious hammers.

One might think higher education would be the very antithesis of thing-oriented thinking. If only. Thing-oriented thinking, alas, is alive and well within the university in the form of technocratic education or education of, for, and by technocrats. The transformation of higher education into technocratic education, into thing-oriented education, into a machine for the invention of hammers has been well underway for quite a while. Its signs are well known: the exaltation in prestige as well as resources of STEM over other disciplines, of “policy” over “pure” knowledge fields, of externally funded research for the market and the military over the instruction of students and citizens, of problems and solutions over context and complexity.

Thing-oriented education grows ever more dominant within the university. So much so that it has now turned the university itself into a thing, into a nail that needs to be hammered into place. To order and reorder the university, to hammer it into shape, thing-oriented thinking has exalted the administrative class within the university over the faculty and students. A bloated administrative class—far removed from core instructional and research functions and impatient with the “messiness” of faculty and student governance—has become the hammer that purports to solve the problem of a university not sufficiently bent to the will of, in King’s words, “machines and computers, profit motives and property rights.”

I offer my home institution as an example. Thing-oriented education is as alive and well at the University of Hawai`i at ​Mānoa (UHM) as anywhere else. The spirit of thing-oriented education is clear in the additional title given to the President of the university: CEO of UHM, the flagship campus. CEO is a corporate-world title, a title drawn from the world of profit motives and property rights. The use of the title has been growing within public higher education. What does it signal with regard to the shift in culture within the not-for-profit enterprise of public higher education? A question worth asking.

At UHM as elsewhere, an ever growing administrative class engages in the doctrinaire pursuit of a narrow technocratic idea of education. For years now, a variety of reorganization efforts have helped to consolidate power in the central administration. Simultaneously, faculty and student governance has been eroded. Recently the faculty senate resoundingly rejected a plan for merging three (largely arts and humanities) colleges, because this merger failed to grant the newly created college the resources and governance structures necessary for its success. Despite overwhelming and sustained opposition from faculty during a multi-year “consultation” process, the administration went ahead with the merger anyway. The technocrats, you see, always know best.

What is going on at UHM has been repeated elsewhere. The story is well known and has been told many times in different ways. For a recent cogent (and comic) review see Hasan Minhaj’s brilliant episode of Patriot Act.

The shift to thing-oriented education has been underway for a long while, but the COVID-19 epidemic promises to intensify the process. Who can argue that a pandemic is not a problem in need of a solution? It is more challenging now than ever to draw a sharp distinction between thing-oriented and person-oriented education. And, yet, draw that distinction we must.

COVID-19 will give administrators—yes, there are brave and inspiring exceptions to such administrators—cover to accelerate the turn to technocratic thing-oriented education. The dangers of such an acceleration are real and should not be underestimated. If the pandemic is one current crisis, the other is police brutality and racial injustice. The lessons of the pandemic should be balanced against those of the racial justice uprisings, which are quite simply acts of resistance to the conversion of people into things to be ordered, reordered, disciplined, kept in place, even expunged via chokeholds. We should fear, as King did in the midst of another era of uprisings, sliding headlong into a thing-oriented society. Against such a society a person-oriented education is the first and last bulwark.

A person-oriented education is one that recognizes the intrinsic value of persons over things. Such an education should, for a start, acknowledge seriously the worth of the humanities and the arts—for a start, because it is not as if these disciplines are immune to thing-oriented thinking. Investing in these disciplines will surely not be enough to counter the thinking King feared. But it should be clear by now that not investing in them is guaranteed to speed us into a generalized condition of thing-ness. These are the disciplines in which person-oriented thinking has the greatest potential to thrive. To put the matter concisely: these disciplines may not be sufficient for the creation of a person-oriented society but they are necessary.

Which, come to think of it, may be why university administrations are busy gutting them to please their thing-oriented masters.


Writing beyond English: The Challenges of Inventing Non-English Worlds in English-Language Novels

World Literature Today has published my observations on what it meant for me to invent a Tamil world in English in my most recent novel Ghost in the Tamarind. Language, politics, translation–the essay touches on these and other challenges. “Writing beyond English” started as a presentation at this year’s AWP, so a shout-out to my most exemplary co-panelits Nandi Odhiambo, Stephanie Han, Samrat Upadhyay, and Peter Kimani.

You can find the essay here.


The Story of Ashoka, the King Who Gave Up Conquest (or Embracing Possibility in an Age of Hopelessness)

Paris / 11.13.2015
Beirut / 11.12.2015
Gaza / July 2014
Abu Ghraib / 2003
Gujarat / February 2002
New York /9.11.2001
Sri Lanka / July 1983
[Fill in place and date of your choice]

We tell stories—we are what our stories make of us.

We have a right to the oil under distant desert sands because we are a modern and industrious people—that is a story.

Terrorism is necessary to fight the empire—another story.

We have the right to kill those who abuse our religion—a story.

No place for idealism in governing. Ruling and exercising power requires making hard and unsentimental choices—the most insidious of stories, a story meant to make us helpless, disorient us morally. A story that has given us drone strikes and torture and extraordinary rendition.

I remember other stories.

As the great Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe often said, the special work of the storyteller is to keep the stories we care about from disappearing. So here is a story I want to keep from disappearing.

Once upon a time there was a king who gave up conquest, committed himself to nonviolence, and embraced wholeheartedly the welfare of his subjects. That king’s name was Ashoka and he ruled from 268 to 232 BCE in that part of the world we now call India.

Early in his life, Ashoka was a bloodthirsty conqueror. In 260 BCE, this warrior king fought a ferocious battle to subdue stubborn Kalinga. Ashoka won. Kalinga was subdued. But the morning after his victory, as Ashoka picked his way through the rotting and crow-pecked bodies littering the battlefield, the great king was brought low by grief. Shocked at the devastation wrought by his violent quest to expand his empire, Ashoka resolved to give up conquest and to devote himself to rule through ahimsa, or nonviolence. He resolved to choose compassion and the welfare of his people over the vainglorious expansion of his empire. This new resolve of the king you can still find etched as edicts on rocks scattered across what was once his vast empire.

Ashoka ruled for nearly forty years. His name means “one without grief.”

This is a story about the happy union of the ideal and the possible. This is the story I choose to remember today.


The Literature and Politics of Shit (Shit Does Not Happen, It Is Allowed to Happen)


This might be the blog post nobody reads. Who wants to read about shit? (Yes, I too am wrinkling my nose.) But for reasons mentioned in this important Human Rights Watch report prepared by researcher Shikha Bhattacharjee there is no getting away from writing about it, especially now:

There is no getting away from shit, period. It is the most human of things, and also the most inhuman.


I can remember visits as a child to the home of relatives in Thirunelveli in South India during which the inhumanity of shit in all its domesticated ordinariness was illustrated for me through a toilet. The toilet in this old and rambling house was an outhouse in the back, open to the sky and without a door. When in use, a chombu of water placed strategically on a wall was warning enough to await your turn. Inside was a long dry trough I remember well, only too well. It was cleaned manually by a scavenger (you should not have to ask me about this person’s social status), who daily came early in the morning before anyone in the house had need to go.

What does it mean that I remember this outhouse so vividly decades later? Let us just say that on my visits I woke up as early as I could.


This very outhouse makes a brief appearance in my last novel No End to the Journey, which is set in a similar village. But the most famous Indian novel in English about shit and manual scavenging is of course Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, written nearly eighty years ago. In that novel, Anand, writing in the midst of the Indian nationalist movement, depicts the life of Bakha, an “untouchable” boy who is a manual scavenger. Towards the end of the novel, Anand has Bakha imagine the flush toilet as the utopian solution to his life of degradation. Technology, Bakha imagines, will free him from a desperate profession through which the untouchability of shit is reconstituted as the untouchability of his body and identity. Eighty years later, and manual scavenging still goes on in India. The technological solutions exist, as do the financial resources; still the horror of manual scavenging has not ended.

The simple truth about shit is that it doesn’t just happen, it is allowed to happen. Read the Human Rights Watch report.


Some of my fellow Indians have no doubt begun to groan by now. They are thinking: One more bit of writing on shit in India! Hasn’t V. S. Naipaul done this already? Haven’t we had enough?

No, we haven’t—not as long as the outrage of manual scavenging exists. I’m no Naipaul. Long ago I wrote critically about him for his silly and ignorant declamations about shit and India. I am not about to join his camp. There are many things of which we Indians should justly be proud. I have written about some of them in earlier posts. Manual scavenging, however, is not one of them.


Manual scavenging is shameful, but the shame of it sticks to us (Indian and non-Indian, frankly) rather than the scavengers. Thank you, dear reader, for getting to the end of this post even if only with wrinkled nose.


Who cares about Palestine? (The Magical Arithmetic of Moral Imagination)

I do, and so should you.

The dividers of humanity will say: what is Palestine to you? You are not Palestinian, or an Israeli. You are from India and live in Hawai’i.

They will say: why don’t you care about the undocumented Central American children being rounded up on the US-Mexican border?

They will say: why don’t you write about the Dalit girls raped in the villages of India?

I do, and I have, and I will. I do care about those children and girls, and so should you.

But does that mean I can’t care about Palestinians today?

I’m talking about moral imagination, you understand. I know there are only so many hours in the day, and so many days in a week. Everyone can’t do everything. I get that. But how much time does it really take to expand your moral imaginative capacity (a good starting place)?

Here’s the crux of the matter. Most things in the world get smaller when you divide them. Money, land, water, oil. These get smaller when you spread them out amongst many people. That’s the tragedy—the war, the political economy, if you get my drift—of the world.

And then there is the call of moral imagination—which is in its own way a magical kind of answer to the tragedy and the war and the political economy. Do you really think if you divided your capacity for caring between two things rather than showering it on one you would care less? Do you really think your compassion for others would shrivel if you cared for the homeless and terrorized in Gaza? That it will now be impossible for you to be moved when you read Primo Levi or Anne Frank? (I am moved when I read them, and so should you.)

Here’s the crux of the matter. Most things in the world get smaller when you spread them out, when you divide them. But some things get bigger. That’s the magic: sometimes division multiplies! And then it multiplies you too in all the right, the magical, ways.

What does it matter if I am not a Palestinian or an Israeli? What does it matter where I am from, or where I live?

I care about what is happening in Palestine, and so, magically, should you.

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Teaching and Learning from Nadine Gordimer

Inarguably, Nadine Gordimer, who died recently, is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. She is not an easy writer to read. I should know since I teach her books often. Most of my students, undergraduate and graduate, have to be taught to appreciate novels like Burger’s Daughter—brilliant, dense, formally and politically challenging novels that demand the reader work to comprehend (for in Gordimer comprehending cannot be separated from working).

Gordimer, to my mind, is a writer’s writer. You could do worse than read her to learn the craft of writing. No doubt, in the school of Gordimer you would not learn “workshop” prose—none of that apolitical realism written in smooth prose taught in creative writing workshops. Alongside stunning feats of technical virtuosity, you would find a certain kind of didacticism. You would learn about being didactic in all the right ways, in ways we have ceased to expect of our “literary fiction,” which we have exiled to professionalized creative writing programs.

Gordimer’s unfamiliar marriage of ethics and aesthetics, earnestness and nuance, is part of her toughness. In Gordimer, didacticism is not the enemy of art. On the contrary, unlike the bad variety, Gordimer’s didacticism is internal to her aesthetic vision. I think this is what she means when she says in interviews that her writing took her to politics rather than the other way round. If your artistic vision helps you produce richly imagined political characters or, for that matter, apolitical characters confronted by deeply political situations, politics will necessarily enter your novel. And then you as a novelist have no need to be didactic, for your characters are didactic for you. This is what I try to get my students to see with a novel like July’s People, beginning with that didactic epigraph from the great Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci.

Gordimer often said that she did not set out to be political. Rather, politics entered her work because of the nature of her preeminent subject matter—life in apartheid South Africa. She is an unusual postcolonial writer—a white writer fully deserving of the term. This too provides great opportunities in the classroom. It is instructive to teach her alongside her peers Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ousmane Sembene—extraordinary African contemporaries who too in very different ways struggle with the tension between art and politics.

Wherever the art of the word is honored as a challenging and deeply ethical practice, Nadine Gordimer will continue to be read.

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Learning Soccer in Nigeria: Reflections, Prompted by the World Cup, on the Beauty and the Morality of Sports

I learned my soccer in Nigeria, at St. Gregory’s, the school I attended in Lagos in the 1970s. I remember one game in particular in which I scored from a half-back position, bursting uncharacteristically through opposing defensive lines to score a goal. It was an exhilarating moment of pure physical exertion. As the teams trudged back to their respective halves for kick-off, a rival player ran up and demanded, “What? You’re scoring nuclear goals now?” It was only after the game that I found out India had detonated an atomic device at Pokhran, thereby announcing its nuclear ambitions to the world. My Nigerian schoolmate, clearly more aware of world news, was alluding to this event in his irate challenge to me.

I confess I later, oblivious to the immorality of nuclear weaponization, swelled with pride at this acknowledgement of my prowess on the field. I was a postcolonial Indian boy in postcolonial Nigeria, not at all a simple thing to be, united with as well as separated from my Nigerian schoolmate in myriad ways by a global colonial history (subject for a future blog). Let us just say that the encounter on that Nigerian soccer field was overdetermined.

By now, you might be thinking I want to draw conclusions about sports and geopolitics but, no, this is a blog that heads in another direction. We know the intimate links sports has with identity—the ways in which, for example, nationalistic decolonizing movements were and are intertwined with sports. Global sports events, such as the cricket or soccer world cups, can hardly be free of these entanglements—indeed, they might very well be primary modes of establishing and advancing identitarian claims.

We know all this. As the soccer world cup in Brazil concludes, as a fan I want to ask rather about the converse—about what might be called the aesthetics of sports. What does it take to isolate the utter beauty of a great sporting event from its political connotations? What does it take to isolate my enjoyment of my own humble goal decades ago on a soccer field in Lagos from the postcolonial context in which it was scored? And what form might a defense of such aesthetic value take? Students of literary criticism will recognize the familiarity of these questions.

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Fathers and Fatherhood: A Report

This is what I have discovered about fatherhood as a son.

A father is a person that you know well, sometimes too well. Perhaps a father is even that person you helplessly grow into. That way in which you hold the newspaper when you read it? Yes, it’s true, that’s the way your father read his newspaper. You have decided never to worry about money (even as the unpaid bills rise ever higher on your desk)? That, as you no doubt know even if you won’t think about it, is exactly what your father would never have done. In this way, a father is never a complete mystery, for your father is in you. Pride or shame or indifference—whatever your assessment of your father, you move inexorably towards a knowledge of him.

But that is not the whole truth, is it? For your movement into knowledge over the years is asymptotical—you are that curved line that approaches the straight line of your father without ever touching except, as the mathematicians say, at infinity. At a certain point, if events proceed in a natural order, a father dies (as mine did a few years ago), and you recognize what you should have always known, that your curving knowledge, ever bending towards your father, will never make its ordained connection. So you will never know your father after all. Your father will always be an unavoidable mystery.

So much for what I know as a son. And then there is that which I have discovered as a father myself.

To be a father is to encounter a mystery that rivals the mystery that is your father—and that mystery is yourself. There is no handbook on how to be a father. You figure it out yourself, whether well or poorly or indifferently, as the case might be. At some point, your son will become eighteen (as my son will in a few weeks). He will become his own person. You have managed to get him there, to the threshold of adulthood. How did you manage it? There is no final answer to that question. But there are many small answers along the way—answers that amount to knowing yourself just a little bit more.

All life is a bending towards a knowledge of yourself. And you will know yourself, as you will know your father, at infinity.