A third of a century ago, Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, a work of fiction, was published. A fatwa calling for his murder followed shortly thereafter, and there has been a bounty on Mr. Rushdie’s head for decades. Someone came awfully close to collecting it yesterday, and even if Mr. Rushdie survives, he has been grievously injured. While media sources such as the NYT say the assailant’s motive was unclear, it isn’t hard to draw an inference here.
Twelve years ago, cartoonist Molly Norris proposed an “Everybody draw Mohammed” day. She has been forced into hiding by threats against her life, and remains off the radar to this day.
Seven years ago, employees at the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo were massacred by men who affiliated themselves with al-Qaeda. Twelve people died and eleven others were injured.
Not quite five months ago, comedian Chris Rock was assaulted on stage by actor/musician Will Smith after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife. Three and a half months ago, comedian Dave Chappelle was assaulted on stage by an individual claiming to be upset by Chappelle’s jokes about various marginalized groups.
A common rhetorical strategy these days is the designation of unwelcome speech and expression (or even the absence of the expression of a favored idea) as “violence.” This attempt to elide the two activities is at best bonehead stupid, and in general disingenuous. That someone can present the argument without meeting disdain and scorn is itself evidence of society’s rush back to a variety of caves.
Or to put it closer to my home:
Parents and children disagree. During occasional disagreements with my folks, we spoke harshly to one another. My parents also had disagreements with my brother. He shot them both in the back of the head.
These are not the same, and to treat them as even remotely equivalent is to dishonor the magnitude of what happened. The conflation of speech with violence is an insult to victims of violence, and a poorly disguised attempt to cow those who disagree. As a corollary, to treat acts of speech or expression as acts of violence is to justify violence in return, and thus to take the side of the attackers in the examples I’ve offered above.
When I look around social media today, I see condemnation of the attack on Rushdie, as there should be. But I ask you — I ask everyone — to remain consistent. If people express ideas you loathe, it’s okay to be hurt or angry. But if you demand that those speakers be forced into silence, then don’t claim to support freedom of expression. You aren’t on Rushdie’s side — he just didn’t happen to piss you off.