Salman Rushdie was stabbed ten times last Friday afternoon when a 24-year-old attacker rushed the stage of the Chautauqua Institution where the author was speaking. The attack was premeditated, and Rushdie’s injuries are severe. The interruption of this placid intellectual setting with an act of murderous violence—one that the Iranian regime has long encouraged—has shocked American consciences. At least, that’s what we can infer from the silence of those who attached themselves in recent years to the voguish notion that provocative speech is tantamount to violence.
It is reasonable to assume that Rushdie’s attacker was animated by the grievances that led Tehran to order devout Muslims to kill him on sight. That 1989 fatwa, issued shortly after the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, is believed to have influenced his attacker. Indeed, this may have been a more “guided” attack than that, according to the NATO officials who spoke with Vice reporter Michael Prothero. “A Middle Eastern intelligence official said it was ‘clear’ that at some point prior to the attack,” Prothero wrote, the alleged assailant “had been in contact with ‘people either directly involved with or adjacent to the Quds Force.”
Perhaps the ambiguity over whether Rushdie’s attacker was acting on Iran’s orders, actively or tacitly, has led those who have argued for years that speech can produce trauma (and can, therefore, justify meting out trauma in equal measure) to hold their tongues. Maybe their silence is indicative of the fact that the target of this assassination attempt bears too much resemblance to themselves for comfort. If there was any intellectual consistency among those who subscribe to this proposition, though, they would be holding fast to their conviction that Rushdie had it coming.
“Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system,” Northwestern University psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett wrote in a 2017 New York Times op-ed. “Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life.” The professor attempted to distinguish “abusive” speech from the “merely offensive,” the former of which can, she asserted, produce negative physical consequences. “We must also halt speech that bullies and torments,” she concluded.
This is the rationale that led college newspaper editorials in the last decade to argue that offensive speech constitutes “an act of violence” and to endorse “appropriate measures” to ensure controversial speech does not fall on fragile ears. It’s this logic that led a majority of college students who responded to a 2015 survey to agree with the idea that “choosing to use or not use certain words can constitute an act of violence.” It is this framing that convinced nearly one-fifth of college students to endorse the proposition that violence may be an “acceptable” way to prevent challenging ideas from ever being expressed.
This infantilizing notion has been trotted out to justify the violence committed by Islamist fundamentalists. “Charlie Hebdo has a long record of mocking, baiting, and needling French Muslims,” wrote Tony Barber in the Financial Times, after the bloody massacre of that French publication’s cartoonists and writers. After all, that’s “what happens when you get a culture that, rather than asking to what end we defend free speech, valorizes free speech for its own sake and thus perversely values speech the more pointlessly offensive it is.” Even then-Secretary of State John Kerry lent credence to this notion when he said of the murderers that they at least had “a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, ‘Okay, they’re really angry because of this and that.’”
Four months after the bloodshed, American blogger Pamela Geller tried to repeat the behavior that supposedly led to this attack. Geller’s “cartoon drawing contest,” an act of solidarity with a famous stunt executed by the Danish publication Jyllands-Posten, had its intended effect. Two radicalized gunmen attacked the Dallas, Texas, venue hosting Geller, where they were killed by security. For successfully duplicating the conditions that inspire violence in the violent, Geller was pilloried. MSNBC host Chris Matthews accused her of “taunting,” “daring,” and “provoking” her would-be murderers. CNN’s Erin Burnett accused her of enjoying “being a target of these attacks,” and New York Daily News columnist Linda Stasi said that it was Geller’s “wish” that there be “more dead Americans at the hands of radical Muslims.”
In 2015, following the bloodshed in Paris, the annual PEN American Center Literary Gala sought to award that year’s Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo. In response, six well-known authors disassociated themselves from the organization. One of the boycotters, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Peter Carey, complained of PEN’s “blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation.” The slaughter of innocents over little more than having the temerity to offend the easily offended was not, he said, something the West should be “self-righteous” about.
Rushdie disagreed. “If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” he wrote. “What I would say to both Peter [Carey] and Michael [Ondaatje] and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.” Of course, no one did. Why would they? Their actions were in line with the intellectual fad of the moment. Dissociating from an organization that celebrated speech for speech’s sake required no courage because it incurred no consequences. Rushdie, by marked contrast, has bled for his consistency.