Monica Ali on Liberalism and Outrage

Brick Lane is one of the finest novels of our time, though I am to be sure very biased given its subject matter. Clearly we’re dealing with a truly brilliant woman. But I had no reason to expect that Ali was also a very astute political observer. After all, speaking plainly about these subjects can only alienate readers and perhaps more importantly the critical gatekeepers.

So imagine my surprise when read her fascinating conversation with Matthew d’Ancona in The Spectator. Note her thoughtful remarks on the brouhaha surrounding her novel and the forthcoming film adaptation, which make for a marked contrast with the usual run of political ranting from celebrated novelists.

She sets all this in the broader context of a crisis within liberalism that concerns her deeply. ‘The fact is that the liberal consensus that used to obtain on freedom of expression has broken down over the last two or three decades. That consensus rested on Enlightenment values and can in particular be traced back to J.S. Mill — the idea that it is the individual that needs protection from the tyranny of prevailing opinion. The individual should be at liberty as long as he does no harm to others. Or, using a Benthamite calculation of utility, the benefits are greater than the detriments. Mill discounts the kind of “moral harm” or “outrage” — disgust, indignation — which weigh so heavily in the balance today, pleading for the elevation of “reason and argument against the deification of mere opinion and habit”.

‘We no longer discount these kinds of “harms” so readily because of the huge transformations, postwar, in our society. We want to have an equal respect for all people which entails having an equal respect for all cultures and ways of life. Therefore the kinds of “moral distress” or “harm” which are generated, for instance, by an art exhibition which some Hindus found “offensive” — such that they forced the exhibition to be closed [the closure in May 2006 by London’s Asia House Gallery of its M.F. Husain show] — are given an entirely different kind of consideration than they would have been given by Mill. For him the absence of outrage would have been a sign of a society in stasis; ironically, it is the rapid changes in society that have elevated outrage as a “harm”.’

Apart from being unusually smart, this strikes me as very persuasive. Granted, Ali is far from the first to embrace something like this reading. But she has a gift for clarity, and that’s saying a lot.

At the risk of going overboard, I agree with d’Ancona: Brick Lane reminds us of why the novel is such a resilient form. Ali deserves the last word.

‘Various people keep announcing that fiction is over and the novel is dead, don’t they? V.S. Naipaul did it the other day didn’t he, bless him! It has an opposition but I think there is a space in the novel to explore without having to be prescriptive or pointing in one direction or another. That’s the great thing about fiction, that you can go along on somebody else’s journey with them to try to understand the world from another point of view. That’s the reason for writing fiction for me, that you can see through somebody else’s eyes.’