Salman Rushdie and America’s “Words Are Violence” Movement

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If you are outraged about the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie, consider these two facts:

~ Across the world, many Muslims consider Rushdie’s words to be violence. Therefore they say actual violence against him is justified.

~ These days, many Americans also say that words are violence. They therefore want some voices silenced or denied a public forum. The diverse group of people whose words have recently been successfully denied an audience includes comedian Dave Chappelle, author J.K. Rowling, scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, historian Jon Meacham, the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh, and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Especially on today’s college campuses, Americans are claiming that some words and voices make them feel “unsafe,” and therefore should be banned. Some sexual and other minorities are claiming that some voices remind them of historical persecution, and so should be expelled from the public sphere even if those voices do NOT call for such persecution today.

Today, Americans’ common response to their fear and anxiety about others’ words is a demand to be protected. Many people, especially those under 30, are claiming the right to not hear certain words or ideas, and even claiming the right to prevent others from hearing them.

This is exactly what tens of millions of Muslims said about Rushdie the novelist—that he did not have the right to write stories they felt insulted by. It wasn’t enough for those people to say “we’re not going to buy or read his books, and we’ll discourage others from doing so.”

They killed Rushdie’s Japanese translator. They put a bounty on Rushdie’s head, forcing him to live in hiding for two decades. And just the other day, in rural New York, one of them came within a half-inch of killing him.

Millions of Americans have lost their taste for free speech. College students and other consumers of popular culture are asserting the right to not have to engage with words or ideas they dislike. Year after year, this intensifies a dangerous downward spiral. Just as humans have to encounter a certain volume of germs to build resistance to disease, humans need to learn how to manage emotional discomfort so they can become resilient, intellectually strong, and able to tolerate difference.


But the current protection from the discomfort of others’ ideas is making students and other Americans more fragile. Successful comedians such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, Pete Davidson, and Amy Schumer won’t play colleges anymore because students would rather be “offended” than challenged or entertained.

In The Coddling Of The American Mind, Lukianoff and Haidt note that university students, abetted by administrators who don’t want to lose customers (or lawsuits), have successfully demanded the following:
~ Trigger warnings on lectures and reading assignments
~ A limit to what facts professors are allowed to discuss
~ Speakers with upsetting viewpoints be prevented from speaking on campus or in public theaters
~ Peer-reviewed articles be retracted because the scientific results are upsetting
~ College speech codes, which allow a minority of students to define any word, gesture, or clumsiness they find uncomfortable as a microaggression—for which students are being punished.
~ Bias Response Teams, which encourage students to formally report on one another and on faculty members whenever they perceive that someone’s speech is “biased.”

Ironically, this is the same generation that demands respect for their rights as sexual minorities. Some trans activists, for example, claim the right to discomfort others regarding bathrooms, sports teams, and language, while dismissing others’ concerns as “transphobia”—a sure way to end any conversation.

And when Hachette announced it would publish Woody Allen’s memoirs, dozens of its own (mostly junior) staff demanded it break its contract. Rather than engage with unproven allegations of sexual assault (dismissed by two different police investigations), these staffers’ solution was to ban the book.


As Van Jones put it in response to a question about how progressive students should react to campus speakers they find ideologically offensive:
“I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.”

Millions of so-called progressives now demand to live in a world that offers no intellectual challenges. And if that means getting people fired from their jobs, getting them professionally blacklisted, limiting what scientific journals are allowed to publish, and purifying libraries, that now seems to be acceptable.

This is not “liberal,” “humanistic,” or “progressive.” The idea that your words are dangerous but mine speak the truth is the height of adolescent narcissism. Labelling someone transphobic, misogynist, a TERF, a Karen, or white-privileged does not constitute a rational discussion. As it did in the Soviet Union and still does in China, it merely prevents people who disagree from collaborating, and it prevents the emergence of truth.

Especially for people who want the right to be sexually diverse, tolerating others’ ideas is crucial. The idea that others’ words are violence denies others the right that we all demand for ourselves—self-expression.

So if you’re outraged by people trying to silence Salman Rushdie, don’t try to silence others—even if you feel uncomfortable with what they say or believe.

Suggesting that “asexuality” is NOT an orientation is not violence. Asking why I am now supposed to routinely give my pronouns is not violence. Noting that there are clusters of teen girls in some neighborhoods deciding they are transsexual is not violence. Opining that any actor can play any role for which they have the necessary skill is not violence.

Words are not violence. Ask anyone who’s ever been raped or punched in the face. Ask Salman Rushdie.

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