Reading and Thinking Freely
Air Date: April 4, 2022
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HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, celebrated author and thinker, Azar Nafisi, author of the new book “Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature in Troubled Times.” Azar, truly a pleasure to welcome you today.
NAFISI: It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for having me.
HEFFNER: You’re very welcome. I want to ask from the outset so our viewers have a sense of what you mean, because definitions are so important in literature, when you implore us to read dangerously, what do you mean by reading dangerously?
NAFISI: Well reading without any presuppositions, reading not in order to confirm what you already know or what you want other people to know, but going into it the way Alice went into the Wonderland. Just out of curiosity, run after that white rabbit, and jump down in the hole without asking what will the hole give me? The hole will all open a new Wonderland that you had not seen. So it is uncomfortable. It is disturbing because we are dealing not with things we know about, but with things that we don’t know about. And that becomes reading dangerously. There is another aspect to it. Fiction is a about truth. And once you know truth, you can’t remain silent. You have to do something about it. So, in that manner, reading fiction, great fiction becomes dangerous because you cannot remain silent.
HEFFNER: You are focused on the fact that we are reading dangerously in what you call troubled times. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, which is unprecedented at least in the last century of human discourse and narrative. People wrote about it, but it wasn’t happening in real life. And there are two things happening simultaneously right now when it comes to the proliferation of literature, fiction and nonfiction. We have a climate in which people are incentivized to write for clicks, to write for amusement. And I’m wondering, first in that climate, how you understand authoring when we are at risk of disininforming or misinforming people, does that change at all how you evaluate this question of reading dangerously?
NAFISI: Well, of course, you read dangerously, not just fiction, but also you go into nonfiction in that manner as well. I think the whole act of writing and reading is an investigation. It is going into the world that you want to find more about. And so non-fiction also, especially good non-fiction or great non-fiction also demands that we read dangerously. We, exactly, because of what you said, that we are living at a time when lies are so prevalent, we need the voice of the truth. And one way of having that voice is through reading and writing.
HEFFNER: Reading, and writing. Now you are, we are all exposed to a world in which what is going to be pervasive or prolific is on the internet, online. There are still readers of written prose and text, but we know that oftentimes what is online gets confused with what goes through an editorial process. When you think of free speech today, do you think of free speech in the same way you thought of it a decade ago, or when you first immigrated to the U.S.? Or do you think of free speech at all differently?
NAFISI: Well, you know, these are the times when we are redefining everything, almost. Almost our existence is at stake. We are, we are redefining what it means to be a human, you know. So, free speech also needs to be relooked at, reviewed. And there has to be only this exchange because what is happening with online right now, we don’t have any real definitions for what free speech should be. We are talking about it, and we are discussing it, but we don’t as yet have it. There needs to be responsibility and accountability there on the internet as well. And that is something that I don’t see in so many ways that I hope we will be discussing and talking about it and doing something about it.
HEFFNER: Azar, you discussed resistance authors who shine a light, illuminate injustice as it is in the present of their lives, or as it could be, in the case of someone like Margaret Atwood. I think about your book and the context of the movement in this country to try to suppress speech. That specifically in the context of today is speech about the history of racism or other forms of bigotry in America. How much of that was on your mind, or is on your mind now?
NAFISI: This is a time of transition. So on one hand we have the legacy of the civil rights movement and other movements for rights and freedoms that has come to fruition in many ways. And on the other hand everything can go either way. I mean, also at this point exactly because of the victory of that movement, of the civil rights movement, we now have a segment of society being scared that they are losing their place, that they’re losing power. So they, so racism and other forms of prejudice have come, have surfaced one more time. They are also going to the extreme, not out of strength, not because they think they have the power, but out of weakness and fear, because they think they’re losing power. And that is why you see so much viciousness going on, because of that fear.
HEFFNER: Azar, how do you deal with that fear? You say fundamentally the desire to suppress speech, whether it was in Iran when you taught there and were an author there, or what now in the U.S. that fundamentally, this is about fear. What do you do about that fear?
NAFISI: Well one reason I wrote this book was to discover what do, what do I do about this fear? And all of the writers that I talk about, they believe in not judgment, but understanding. And sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of a totalitarian mindset and act like them. I think the first thing we need to do is not act like them. And there is a segment of society that does respond to them in kind. If they cancel, then they cancel as well. If they use violent rhetoric, they use a kind of rhetoric that there is no, that leaves no room for discourse. We should be what we claim we want to be. We want a society that is based on justice, that is tolerant and that is that is dynamic, that is constantly changing and accepts change.
So we have to understand that politics alone cannot bring about this change, because what we are fighting against is a mindset. It’s a totalitarian mindset and you fight it with something that is completely different from that mindset. If that mindset monopolizes everyone, it wants to have ownership of your soul and heart and mind, you go to the other place, which is why fiction becomes so important. Because fiction by structure is democratic. It is multivocal, it allows every voice including that of the villain to speak. So a bad writer is one that imposes his voice, his message on all characters. But here fiction liberates characters, allows them to exchange a dialogue with other characters and with the world around them. And that is the other thing about fiction, which goes exactly opposite the totalitarian mindset, is its acceptance of the others.
Others become very focal and very important, because you are writing for those others that you don’t know. And you read those others that you don’t know. So here, we need to have a democratic mindset that accepts others, that is universal, that is empathetic and curious. By the way, I always remember Vladimir Nabokov saying curiosity is insubordination in its purest form. So just by being curious, you come out of yourself. You question not just the world, but your own self. And that is partly what we should do at least in regards to reading and writing.
HEFFNER: Azar, that’s really amazing. You take my breath away in your pen and in your oratory. I hope you heard that because I know our connection was failing earlier.
NAFISI: I couldn’t help, but here it all ears. Thank you.
HEFFNER: And you identify that the novel is ultimately democracy. It is the ultimate form of democratic governance, if you will, or democratic participation, which I find really fascinating. Beyond that you said the key is understanding. And if you are chronicling as a nonfiction author and speaking truth assertively, you seem to highlight the importance of doing so empathetically and that you can assert a moral authority empathetically. And I think that is what a is so lost in the public sphere today.
NAFISI: Yeah. And, and that is why, I mean, the novel focuses on the individual. And usually it is the plot circles around that individual or those individuals’ freedom of choice. Now that is exactly opposite what a totalitarian mindset does because it generalizes everything. And it also manufactures, by manufacturing lies, it manufactures enemies. It can’t live without an enemy. You remember the former president saying that the press are enemy of the people. That is a line out of Stalin’s playbook, you know, enemy of the people. So what we need to do with fiction is to understand that imaginative knowledge is not something that you have now, and then you have an iPhone, and you don’t read stories anymore. You go after your iPhone or whatever, or the games and the internet. Imaginative knowledge is a way of perceiving the world, relating to the world, and changing the world. Nothing can replace it. It can change form at different times, but it simply cannot be replaced. We’ve had stories since the dawn of mankind. And we will have stories until the robots take over.
HEFFNER: (Laughs). And at that point, if, and when the robots do take over and rest assured, they are beginning to take over, we risk losing story. I think that’s what you’re saying too.
NAFISI: Yeah. We risk losing stories. And we are, I mean, it is through stories that we comprehend others, because we put ourselves in their place. The shock of recognition, it is not just that we are different. The shock of recognition is how alike we are, as human beings. And totalitarian mindset tries to dehumanize us. It takes away from us curiosity and empathy because everything is already prepared for you. There are formulas according to which you have to shape your life. And when I talk about it in the Salman Rushdie and Plato chapter, I talk about it, that the world of the philosopher king is very orderly and hierarchical. We have the noble lie. The world of the poet is anarchic and ambiguous and contradictory and full of conflict, full of different voices. And we have to decide which one we choose, what kind of a world we want to live in, because totalitarianism also has its perks. It’s so comfortable. Somebody else will decide for you what you do, and you just belong always to the white hats. And do as you are told.
HEFFNER: We don’t want to forecast a dystopian era. We’re talking about the importance of human autonomy and mobility. And like you said, that producing a kind of imaginative knowledge, but what do you do about the predicament of conflating fiction and nonfiction because what’s happening now in the discourse around free speech is folks who are in this pandemic, anti-vax, are arguing that it is, you know, their right and their autonomy, editorially or otherwise, to proliferate that. Meanwhile, people who are concerned about the banning of the teaching of racism or the teaching of bigotry are saying you can’t restrict that, we have to have syllabi that invite all knowledge, including the deepest and darkest and most egregious genocides that men and women are responsible for. So how do you deal with this conflation where on the one hand you have very high-profile politicians and media personalities saying that we should have a universe of so-called knowledge that is fictional in fact when it, when it is being purveyed when it is being consumed, it is, it is actually being identified as nonfiction.
NAFISI: Well was your question that …
HEFFNERL Just to, to put it very bluntly, if you’re truly being purist about free speech, you should enable people to, you know, openly teach the argument for and against vaccination.
HEFFNER: And yet the scientific reality of doing that is that a lot of people, a lot more people are going to die.
HEFFNER: And you, so you have, what’s going on now is a kind of conflation of fiction and nonfiction in how we discuss certain topics. And I’m just wondering, again, if you’re purist, if you’re absolutist about it, you say, you know, we have to have a public square where you can make an argument for and against, even if your argument for, or against is injurious to the public health. And again, I’m wondering your reflections on this kind of ongoing conflation of fiction and nonfiction. You talk about imaginative knowledge, right? But imaginative knowledge is when fiction leads you to truth. And I don’t know what you consider our current situation where you have sort of fiction leading us still to fiction.
NAFISI: (Laughs). Yeah, that, that is why I was talking about this being a transition period where everything is going to be revised and reviewed and redefined, hopefully in the direction of a more democratic society rather than not. And I do see the dilemma that you are talking about. Those talking about freedom and freedom of speech, I guess we also need to look at our responsibility when we use rhetoric because rhetoric can lead to action. So for example, some say those who say we don’t wear the mask because we are, we want to be free. Where does that freedom stop if somebody else might die because you want to be free? So I think that these are the questions that are ongoing forever and ever,
HEFFNER: Right. And somebody may die as a result of not teaching about Jim Crow,
HEFFNER: Not teaching about the trials and tribulations of abolitionists. I mean, so it’s, again a real Catch 22, a predicament we, you know, I that, again, the purists are making the argument that, you know, may the best argument win. You know, the, that sunlight is the best disinfectant. And I know that you and Salman Rushdie and others that we’ve hosted here on The Open Mind often make that argument, we need an open discourse, an open dialogue. But what happens when your nonfiction, when your truth leads to real damage and the erosion of health or civil society. But, but Azar, where do you fall in this debate in terms of, you know, making speech into some kind of absolute question of, you know we need to have people who are arguing, you know, for and against something, even when one of those arguments might be clearly wrong?
NAFISI: That is why education becomes so important, because education, if it is good, and right now education in the United States is in a very sorry state, it will give us the weapons with which we can have our cake and eat it too, to have our freedom of speech without, but knowing where we are responsible, knowing that it cannot just be a free for all. So I think that that is, in schools, the good thing about it is that you can argue both sides within a context that is not making policies or anything. It is just disseminating knowledge. And I guess there is a difference between those who are making the argument for free speech based on facts and those who don’t. Or at least right now, that is how I see it.
HEFFNER: Let me, let me ask you, I’m always interested Azar in the comparative analysis. When you look at that comparison of suppression in the U.S. versus suppression in Iran, what do you, you know, where do you fall on and, what do you thinking about in that comparison?
NAFISI: I mean, Iran is a totalitarian society. Definitely. And if the talk of free speech over there is moot because you get killed for it. You get jailed and censored, jailed, tortured, and even killed. So many of our writers and translators have, and journalists have already been killed. And so many of them are in jail. So I do understand that U.S. is not Iran, that I can speak to you freely about everything and criticize the system. But what I have been seeing since I came to U.S. is these trends that are totalitarian trends that are dangerous, and they have been there for a long time. And books become like canaries in the mine. They become indicators of where we are going. And so, when I came to this country, I realized that there is another weapon against knowledge that is being used so effectively, and that is indifference. This, this society has become indifferent towards knowledge, towards reading, towards writing. And that is as bad as is censorship. They both go to the same place. They both make you not read. And so, while I never say that United States is Iran, I do say and see many trends. And I think it’s a mistake to think that it won’t happen here. When you think it won’t happen here, maybe it’s already beginning to happen.
HEFFNER: Azar, thank you so much for your eloquence.
NAFISI: Thank you so much.
HEFFNER: For your presentation and the thoughtfulness with which you leave us today. I know our audience greatly appreciates it.
NAFISI: I’m now going to go home and think about your questions…thank you for that.
HEFFNER: Thank you. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org/OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews. And do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.