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When Words “Cut Like A Knife”


Salman Rushdie is 75, an age to which many thought he may not make it after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa (with a $2.5 million bounty) because he wrote a book, The Satanic Verses. After the ’90s, he chose to live his life and no longer be guided by fear of assassination, which worked well until he was stabbed by 24-year-old Hadi Matar in his neck, arm and liver. He’s on a ventilator after surgery, expected to suffer loss of an eye, nerves damage in his arm and liver damage. If he lives.

Rushdie was a huge proponent of free speech. Not just the First Amendment kind, but the concept. He signed onto the Harper’s Letter, which rather than persuade the scolds of the left to be tolerant of ideas that challenged their hatred, became a list of people to denigrate as dark “intellectuals” for their failure to be woke.

It’s unlikely that many, even on the left, will speak ill of Rushdie today, will argue that he deserved assassination for heresy toward the deity of a marginalized people, unlike the staff of Charlie Hebdo who brought their own murders on themselves for having mocked Mohammed. Then again, there is no rushed op-ed in the New York Times, as least as of now amidst the op-eds about Trump and the climate bill that used to be called the inflation reduction bill when it still needed to be sold, pointing at Rushdie and shouting that this is what conflating words and violence has wrought.

There is such an op-ed in the The Daily Beast, written by FIRE’s Greg Lukianoff and Robert Shibley, because the principled vision wasn’t obscured by the myriad of influences of whose identity, religion, skin color, genitalia, made up pronouns du jour, allows who to stab whom with impunity over word. Over fucking words.

The message sent by a successful attack on Rushdie is loud and unmistakable: your hurtful speech is the equivalent of violence against me and my values, and you deserve violence in return. It’s a message intended not just for Rushdie, but for anyone who might be tempted to follow in his footsteps.

But isn’t this different, a religious fatwa? After all, religion is way out of favor as a general concept, although Muslim far less so because Trump issued a Muslim ban which makes that religion less despised than Christianity or Judaism. Or are some trying to pretend its different to avoid looking in the mirror at a pseudo-intellectual hypocrite?

Advocates for seeing offensive speech as a form of violence tend to think that doing so would make society better. For example, just days after the riot that shut down a Milo Yiannopolous speech at the University of California-Berkeley in 2017, the Daily Californian student newspaper ran five op-eds in a single day from authors who sought to justify the use of violence in order to prevent the political provocateur of the moment from speaking. “These were not acts of violence. They were acts of self defense,” concluded one of the pieces.

These are not simply fringe opinions out of Planet Berkeley. In the largest campus survey of free expression, only 76 percent of students said it’s never acceptable to use violence to stop a campus speech. That is almost one in four students reporting some level of acceptance for violence to stop a speech they disagree with—even if they think it’s only “rarely” acceptable. This is alarming given that such efforts would be legal zero percent of the time. At some higher education institutions, such as Wellesley and Barnard, the percentage of students who say violence is never acceptable to stop a campus speech dropped to as low as 56 and 57 percent, respectively.

“But we mean well,” they mutter to themselves as if the blood they draw is different than Salman Rushdie’s blood. Wrap up your fascism in a pretty pink bow and it’s suddenly the good kind of fascism?

As Greg notes in his take on the death of Berkeley, where the free speech movement was born and has since died, it’s not that the woke aren’t educated. If anything, they’re too educated, so overripe that they’ve gone to rot. They have the capacity to play cute rhetorical games like “These were not acts of violence. They were acts of self defense,” when they’re not trying to force their word salad down people’s throat.

But it’s bullshit, a game of rhetorical Calvinball that they’re either too blind or dishonest to admit. It’s sometimes said that words “cut like a knife,” but it’s merely a phrase, a metaphor, to convey a feeling through the use of imagery. Words can hurt, can sting. but a knife can pierce your body and cost you an eye, an arm, a liver. Salman Rushdie wasn’t cut by words, but a knife. That was violence, and a very significant percentage of young people, woke or not, have internalized the belief that they would be justified in shoving a knife in a human being if they say the wrong words. Fuck that shit.


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