In August, the author Salman Rushdie was stabbed in the neck. The novelist has spent decades living under the threat of a hit put out by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. The religious directive was a response to Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, which Khomeini regarded as blasphemous. For many, the attack was an opportunity to reflect on the importance of free expression, and a reminder of the clear distinction between speech and violence.
For others, it was an opportunity to remind others of the clear distinction between speech and violence, which is something that all those snowflake libs, who are sort of like the fanatic who stabbed Rushdie in the neck, should take to heart.
“We live in a culture in which many of the most celebrated people occupying the highest perches believe that words are violence,” Bari Weiss wrote on her Substack, citing no one in particular. “In this, they have much in common with Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.” She added that “of course it is 2022 that the Islamists finally get a knife into Salman Rushdie. Of course it is now, when words are literally violence and J.K. Rowling literally puts trans lives in danger and even talking about anything that might offend anyone means you are literally arguing I shouldn’t exist.”
As an outlet, The Atlantic attempts to provide readers with a broad spectrum of perspectives based on shared values. One of these values is freedom of speech, a principle to which I and all of my cherished colleagues are deeply committed. The assassination attempt on Rushdie was a direct attack on that freedom, and it should be no surprise that writers here have a great deal to say about it. But I must respectfully disagree with some of my colleagues about the conclusions they have drawn from the attack, linking contemporary left-wing discourse with a fundamentalist theocrat’s call for assassination.
My colleague Graeme Wood pointed to Jimmy Carter’s 1989 op-ed criticizing Rushdie to argue that “over the past two decades, our culture has been Carterized. We have conceded moral authority to howling mobs, and the louder the howls, the more we have agreed that the howls were worth heeding.” He acknowledged, however, that “since the attempt on Rushdie’s life, almost no one has advanced these arguments,” meaning a link between the emotional injury of blasphemy and the very literal violence of murder. If our society were truly “Carterized,” I would have expected instead to have seen some prominent American figures make the argument Carter did decades ago.
Another one of my colleagues, Caitlin Flanagan, settled for an exegesis of the views of the Twitter user @MeerAsifAziz1, whose account no longer exists. She argued that “the culture of free speech is eroding every day,” and offered a hypothetical example: “Ask an Oberlin student—fresh outta Shaker Heights, coming in hot, with a heart as big as all outdoors and a 3 in AP Bio—to tell you what speech is acceptable, and she’ll tell you that it’s speech that doesn’t hurt the feelings of anyone belonging to a protected class.”
I’ll make no secret that I believe the focus on the misguided egalitarianism of undergraduates at private colleges has been disproportionate. People like this exist, though, and it’s fair to criticize them. What I frankly find puzzling is presenting this hypothetical student as the avatar of the idea that dangerous speech and ideas must be suppressed, when in statehouses and governors’ mansions, politicians who have the authority to enforce their ideas about censorship with state power are actually putting them into practice. Unlike the hypothetical Oberlin student, these officials are real, and the threat they pose to free speech is not only clear and present, but backed by a certain level of popular demand.
I agree with Weiss and Wood and Flanagan that there is a bright line between speech and violence that must be respected, and that trying to kill someone for offending you is monstrous. Speech is not violence, and to argue so is to imply that violence is an appropriate response. The unacknowledged reality of these three essays, however, is that what I just stated remains the broad, widely held consensus in American life, from right to left. Americans simply do not live under anything resembling the kind of repression in which people are killed for blasphemy with state or popular support.
Weiss, Wood, and Flanagan also noted the objection of a group of writers and thinkers to the PEN association bestowing an award on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical publication that terrorists attacked in 2015 over its caricatures of the Muslim prophet Muhammad, murdering 12 people, including several staff members, police officers, a maintenance worker, and someone who was visiting that day. The letter signers described the massacre as “sickening and tragic” while criticizing PEN for “valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
Weiss attacked the “civic cowardice” of those who objected, while Flanagan wrote that these writers were pressuring the organization to “abandon its mission” of protecting freedom of expression. Wood described the writers’ position as muddling “the distinction between offense and violence, and between a disagreement over ideas and a disagreement over whether your head should remain attached to your body.”
I would not have signed that letter if asked, not only because I do not sign open letters, as a matter of preference, but because I believe that blasphemy is a human right, and that the message that PEN was sending with the award was an endorsement not of Charlie Hebdo’s content but of the staff’s bravery in the face of an attempt to silence them through murder. But just as I have no objection to the award, I have no issue with people criticizing it because they do not want it to be interpreted as an endorsement of the racist caricatures Charlie Hebdo is known for, even accepting that they are intended with a layer of irony. (I’m not sure how many of the people disseminating these images are aware of the irony.) These may be mutually exclusive positions, but both are consistent with respecting free speech. Indeed, both the writers of the letter and its critics are arguing that there are things you can say but should not.
One of the significant measures of free speech in a given society is how people deal with blasphemy—whether religious offense provokes state censorship or violence. America has a relatively strong record in that respect in comparison with much of the rest of the world, while clearly faltering in others. The suggestion here, however, is that the writers who objected to the award granted to Charlie Hebdo are in some sense justifying the massacre, and therefore defending the notion that violence is an appropriate response to offensive speech. But surely one can defend the right of Nazis to publicly protest while rejecting the tenets of national socialism. If I cannot defend the fundamental right of a speaker to be offensive while objecting to their speech, then what am I actually defending?
In this case, the rights being asserted seem to be the right to be offensive, and the right of the offended to shut up and like it. The former combined with the latter is not an assertion of the right to free speech so much as a right to monologue, which I do not recognize.
The American culture of free speech is indeed under threat, as Flanagan argued. Free speech requires a robust exchange of views without the coercion of threats and violence, and self-censorship in response to social pressure is a genuine risk. Yet by definition, there is no free speech if one person is allowed to make an argument and another is not allowed to object to it. Nor has there ever been a time in American history when freedom of speech was not threatened with proscription by the state, or when one could express a controversial opinion and not risk social sanction. In short, the culture of free speech is always under threat.
In almost every era of U.S. history, the bounds of free expression have been contested. In the founding era, patriots tarred and feathered royalists. Before the Civil War, southern states passed laws that could be used to prosecute the dissemination of abolitionist literature and sought to prevent the Postal Service from delivering antislavery pamphlets, saying they would foment insurrection by the enslaved. Mobs followed the abolitionist Frederick Douglass across the North, throwing rotten eggs, stones, and menacing slurs at the orator at speaking events. After Reconstruction, white supremacists destroyed the office of Ida B. Wells’s newspaper, The Free Speech and Headlight, following the publication of an editorial arguing that lynchings of Black men accused of raping white women were in fact punishment for consensual relationships. The Red Scares of the 20th century saw Americans forced from their jobs and prosecuted for leftist beliefs or sympathies on the grounds that those were tantamount to a commitment to overthrowing the government. Out of that crucible emerged a civil libertarian concept of free speech that many have mistaken for timeless rather than a product of a certain history and a particular arrangement of political power. The idea that certain forms of speech or expression justify or provoke violence, let alone that blasphemy does so, is not an invention of modern social-justice discourse.
Every generation faces a different challenge when it comes to freedom of expression. Ours includes not only the widespread and growing campaign of state censorship led by Republican lawmakers, but a social-media panopticon that can both deny us the privacy necessary to come to our own conclusions and inhibit the courage necessary to express them. Most of us are not meant to be privy to every misguided utterance of a stranger, nor are we meant to have our errors or worst moments evaluated publicly by people who learned of our existence only as the focus of political propaganda, as the subject of ridicule, or as acceptable targets in pointless feuds between online cliques. (Although it must be said, there are those who thrive in such conditions, and have successfully exploited them for fame, profit, and status.)
Yet, as Aaron R. Hanlon recently wrote in The New Republic, this wave of censorship laws in Republican-controlled states bears scant mention among many of the most prominent self-styled defenders of free speech, or at least, far less than the tyranny of the ratio. But we do not become little Rushdies when our inboxes and mentions are inundated with deranged filth from disturbed strangers, as a result of the public-facing profession we chose and the technological advancements that make us more accessible to such people.
It is not minimizing the power of digital mobs to say that spending decades with the state-backed threat of an assassin’s blade at your throat is coercion of a different magnitude. The wrath of an online mob can be harrowing: harassment, outrageous falsehoods, and threats are not pleasant to bear, and can threaten not just your mental health but your livelihood, and in extreme cases your safety. To pretend that seeking to avoid such an experience does not condition what people say and how they act would be foolish. But to pretend that this is a left-wing ideological phenomenon rather than a structural one, when educators, medical providers, election officials, and others from all walks of life are being driven underground by right-wing influencers who can conduct a mob like an orchestra, would be equally foolish.
The United States is living through the largest wave of state censorship since the second Red Scare. Beyond the plague of education gag laws restricting the teaching of unpleasant facts about American history, conservative judges seek to rewrite constitutional free-speech protections to punish the “liberal” media, and conservative states pass laws against public protest and immunize from liability those who would run over protesters with their cars, while law-enforcement organizations hope to use civil lawsuits to sue demonstrations against police brutality out of existence. Conservatives have sought to fire librarians and purge public libraries of books they deem controversial by categorizing them as obscene, as state officials try to punish teachers who provide their students with public information that allows them to access samizdat from libraries in states where it is not forbidden. Not only do abortion bounty laws seek to enforce silence around reproductive health, lest a person discussing the subject prick the ears of some snitch seeking a payday, but the overturning of Roe has coincided with explicit attempts to criminalize speech about abortion. In the strongest labor market in a generation, billionaires seek to use their power and authority to crush workers organizing for better conditions and a living wage.
There is no shortage of major free-speech issues to address in America today, but many of us in the writing profession are primarily concerned with our social-media experience, because that is what we most directly and frequently encounter. Instead of recognizing that the warped behavioral incentives created by social media are a structural problem, we tend to blame the people online who annoy us the most. In many cases, those defending “free speech” are not defending freedom of expression so much as seeking the power to determine which views can be publicly expressed without backlash, and which can be silenced without reproach. When we speak of an idealized past without chilling effects, we are simply imagining a time when the social consensus was repressive and stifling for someone else.
These conflicts are far more complex precisely because there is no clear line where social pressure from those exercising their rights of free speech and association crosses over into censoriousness. State censorship and violent compulsion are relatively easy to identify and oppose, if not always easy to prevent. When does accountability become harassment? When does protest become coercion? What views should be acceptable to state in polite society, and which should be appropriately shunned by decent people? When does a voice of criticism become the howl of a mob? When does corporate speech become corporate censorship? No society in human history has ever had simple answers to these questions. In a free society, sometimes people will choose to be horrible, and there is little to do other than make a different choice and counsel people to do the same.
Presenting these dilemmas as similar to an attempt to silence someone with a theocratic death mark is trivializing, and ahistorical. There has never been a golden age when anyone could say what they wanted without consequence, only eras in which one shared perspective was dominant. Though nostalgia may cloud our perceptions, those times were no more free, even if politics, ideology, or self-promotion might compel us to remember otherwise.