At the end of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) replicant Roy Batty shows his humanity shortly before dying by recalling all he has lived and concluding that, with his death, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain”, a moving line which actor Rutger Hauer contributed to the film, ignoring the script. This is one of the most famous speeches in the history of cinema, but the line from the same scene I recall far more strongly is “Quite an experience to feel fear. That’s what it’s like to be a slave” which the enslaved replicant addresses to the man chasing him, detective Deckard (Harrison Ford), at a moment when his life is in Batty’s hands. I assume that the line was written by scriptwriter David Peoples, and I salute him for encapsulating in it the reason why we act as cowards in the face of rampant abuse: we are all enslaved by fear, and this fear has its roots in violence.
It is inevitable to mention this week the brutal attack suffered by Indian-born author Salman Rushdie, thirty-three years after the fatwa that Ayatollah Khomeini endorsed against him for having allegedly mocked Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses (1989). I live in a country where the Inquisition caused 1346 persons to be executed in horrid ways between 1478 and 1834, including the occupied territories of Central and South America, so I am quite familiar with the brutality to which radicalized religious belief can lead. Precisely because of that, I am, like many other persons, shocked to see that religious fanaticism is still alive and causing so much damage, when it should be just a matter of the historical past.
Fanaticism is the basis not just of the attack against Rushdie, but also of the terrorism that altered so viciously the peace in Barcelona one afternoon in August five years ago, and of the new captivity of all the women in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime established in 2021. I’m not forgetting the victims in Palestine, nor the American women prevented from aborting by the fundamentalist bigots at the US Supreme Court. To those who wonder why the Jewish Holocaust was never stopped, I would reply that the answer is clear, since we are seeing similar examples today: we’re just slaves who can be easily cowed into submission by fear. And when we are afraid, we just don’t care, and don’t act.
I do not know whether there ever was a time when humans lived with no violence, but for the sake of argumentation I am going to suppose that did happen. I have often argued that patriarchy is not fundamentally about sexism but about dominance and power. Dominance, however, is maintained by means of violence and my guess is that patriarchy started when one of the male hunters in a tribal hunting party understood that the violence used against animals could be used against fellow humans to gain ascendancy. The first patriarch was most likely a bully who saw that his ability to use violence could be turned into the foundation for power, and who usurped from women the power to give life by placing the phallus at the centre of social life.
The tribal chieftain need not be a bully or a villain, but the system of terror imposed using violence (obey me or else…) is the very foundation of patriarchal civilization, the authoritarian regime in which we all live, including democracies. The other system of patriarchal control was established through religion. I read not so long ago in a text by someone whose name I have forgotten that religion appeared as a system to impose obedience when tribes grew large. The chieftain and his warriors can only control through direct violence a limited amount of individuals, but if you instil in the tribe the fear of the gods or of god though persons presented as a cast of sacred beings (either wizards or priests) then the number of individuals you can control can grow into billions, as Catholicism and Islam show.
I don’t know about Islam, but I can say for sure that Catholicism has controlled personal behaviour by means of the fear of hell, and social ostracism, and whenever this failed, by the violent means which the Inquisition backed. The hold of Catholicism is now much weakened, and the Pope no longer excommunicates any believers for their transgressions or for blasphemy, but in historical terms, this church is not so different from the rampant fanaticism we see today in other religions.
The supposition is that History progresses toward a future in which all human rights will be respected and the authoritarian regime we know as patriarchy will be transformed into a democracy run by fully participative citizens. When Hadi Matar plunged his knife ten times into the unprotected body of Salman Rushdie he not only put the clock back to 1989, but also confirmed that progress is halting. The rights of Afghan women and LGTBIQ+ persons have evaporated, and the same is happening in the USA. Putin, Trump, Bolsonaro, and the many other patriarchs menacing democracy are pulling us back into the darker times we thought were just part of History, sorry to repeat my argument. Talk of nuclear warfare is becoming normalized in the hottest summer on record, which indicates that climate change might not have time to kill us because a nuclear winter will. The fanaticism and the fascism we believe were dead are coming back, like the psychotic killer of the increasingly bad sequels, and although no other group of six million people have been exterminated as systematically as the European Jews were killed, immense human collectives are being victimized, with women at the top of the list, even though we are actually the 52% majority in the world.
A question often asked of African-American slaves is why they never staged a collective rebellion and mass-murdered their owners, since these were clearly a minority in comparison to the number of enslaved persons. Well, replicant Roy Batty gave us the answer: being a slave is living in fear, and living in fear makes you a slave. I’ll add that you possibly need just 10% of truly brutal bullies to enslave the rest, though from what I see in the votes of those who support extreme right-wing policies, between 25% and 30% of the population are slaves who long for a tough master and who think that the rest should be enslaved.
As a woman, I am terrified. By this trend, by the onslaught against women’s rights, by the hatred against LGTBIQ+ persons even in countries like Spain where gay marriage is a right, and by the inability of the world community to stop beasts like Putin. We are going backwards so fast it will take us centuries to regain the future. Think of what J.K. Rowling must be feeling now, trapped as she is between the fury of the trans activists who have branded her a TERF, and the hatred of the radical Muslim man who announced to her on Twitter after Rushdie was attacked “you’re next”. And I am not forgetting Catalan Muslim rapper Miss Raisa, a defender of the LGTBI community. A man was arrested just a few days ago, having not only threatened to behead her but apparently preparing to do so.
My personal freedom of speech and our collective freedom of speech is jeopardised by the fear and hatred poured on us, both by long-lived institutions like organized religion and new ones, like the social media. Salman Rushdie thought he was free from the fatwa and was travelling with no escort, tired of the years he spent secluded like a prisoner. His attack by a young man who was not even born when the fatwa was issued, and who most likely acted as a lone wolf might be just the work of an isolated fanatic individual, but this man represents something deeper.
The freedom of speech of the radicalized, undemocratic others, whether they are the Taliban or Donald Trump, has not been curved down, whereas ours has been limited by their violence. Twitter expelled Trump, but that was in the end a token gesture. Among the barrage of tweets reacting to the attack on Rushdie with love and compassion, you could see a river of tweets celebrating and justifying it. I do not deny that The Satanic Verses may have offended some Islamic believers, but this is a matter to be argued using words, not a knife. In fact, the attack is going to have the opposite effect, as sales of the novel instantly boomed. I am just very sorry for the peaceful Muslims, the immense majority, who will have to bear the brunt of this man’s cruel and idiotic criminal action.
I don’t care, in any case, as much for Rushdie as I care for the 14.2 million women and girls in Afghanistan, enslaved by the Taliban. I don’t know how many of the 15 million men are part of the regime, or complicit with it, but I fear above all that this is a blueprint for the spread of anti-democratic patriarchy all over the world. See what Amnesty International has to say.
I personally no longer feel free, if I ever have, and indeed have stopped believing in the freedom of speech. Popular actor Tom Holland has just announced that he is closing temporarily his social media to protect his mental health from the constant criticism. I understand his decision, but the problem is that as things are now, the only way to protect one’s mental health is to totally disconnect from the world, and protect whatever privileges you may have. If you want to be minimally connected to life today, particularly if you’re a woman, you need to accept the mental distress, the anxiety, and the fear. And try to perpetuate the illusion of freedom despite knowing that, even under the best circumstances, you’re nothing but a slave to greed, authoritarianism, hatred, and lust for power, in short, of patriarchy. The freer you think you are, the less you will understand your own enslavement.
I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328, and visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/. The Spanish version of the blog is available from https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/es/