Image Credit: Jackie Molloy/The New York Times
It has been almost three months since the British-American writer and faculty member of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Salman Rushdie was stabbed on stage during a literary event in New York by Hadi Matar at the Chautauqua Institution. On October 14th, 2022, I virtually joined an event, An Evening for Salman Rushdie, organized by PEN International at the British Library to celebrate his strength and dedication as a writer and a champion of free expression. In a way, it was also an evening of reflection. As horrifying as the assault on Rushdie was, it was 33 years in the making. Upon the Satanic Verses publication, protests broke out in India, the novel was banned, and footage of book burnings was widely broadcast around the world. Above all, a fatwa was issued against Rushdie by the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini which sent him into hiding.
It is hard to think of another book with such an extremely bloody trail. The body of Hitoshi Igarashi, an assistant professor of comparative Islamic culture at Tsukuba University, located in the northeast region of Tokyo, was discovered by a cleaning lady in the hallway of a campus building in July 1991. In that same month, Ettore Capriolo, the translator of the Italian version of the Satanic Verses was also impaled by a knife on his neck, chest, and hands in his apartment in Milan. In 1993, a Norwegian publisher, William Nygaard was shot three times outside his house in Oslo for publishing the Norwegian translation of the condemned book. And the list goes on.
It is hard to think of another book with such an extremely bloody trail.
Yet, I believe we are at a more critical moment in our time to say that the attack on Rushdie is an attack on all writers everywhere. There is a saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. It is this notion that one can kill a writer but not their idea. But what do we do when we are living through this transitional period in our culture where our pens are taken away due to this belief that words are violence? Along these lines, we have much in common with the Islamists who are chopping off anyone that dares to express their opinions that are remotely associated with their religion because the right not to get offended is more paramount than the right to free speech. Instead of realizing that we need to oppose these attacks on freedom of expression, we think we need to placate them with compromise and renunciation in the names of inclusion and acceptance.
What we can learn from Rushdie, a man who has spent half of his life with a bounty on his head, is that, “We are living in the darkest time I have ever known,” as he told the French newspaper L’Express in 2015. One would think that Rushdie would have said such a thing in the height of chaos. It wouldn’t have been in 2015 when he became an American citizen and has lived here without visible protection. Hence, why on Earth did he think it was the “darkest time” he had ever known? It is because what he witnessed was the decline of the relentless commitment to freedom of speech that saved his life. In the same interview with L’Express, he stated, “If the attacks against Satanic Verses had taken place today, these people would not have defended me and would have used the same arguments against me, accusing me of insulting an ethnic and cultural minority.” He didn’t have to speculate that because we are living proof of it.
Recently, I came across a report on FIRE’s 2022 College Free Speech Rankings, and NYU scored 51.64 out of 100 on it. While I am glad that we did so much better than Columbia University which received only 9.91, it is also, to be honest, quite unsettling. About two points below, NYU would have failed. Looking at this report compels me to ask some difficult questions about us—questions I worry we have forgotten how to ask: How would we act if someone whose ideas we despise is shut out of public discourse? Would we have the courage to live by the values we profess and defend their fundamental right of a free society: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned? Or have we gotten so afraid, so coddled, so divided, and so removed from the world of flesh and blood, that we would let those dissenters with competing ideas be stifled?
How would we act if someone whose ideas we despise is shut out of public discourse?
There are hundreds of stories I could point to. Stories that are now whooshed away by us on our social media feeds daily. Perhaps you can probably think of a dozen more in your communities that have gone by unnoticed. Perhaps you experience firsthand what it is like to sit in classrooms and feel the weight to elevate an ideology you differ from. Perhaps instead of discussing and debating ideas forthrightly and sincerely, you have been advised to conform, toe the party line, or be quiet. Perhaps you have been urged to trade investigative fact-finding for recognition of a predetermined narrative. Perhaps instead of writing an essay with an argument you believe in, you are pressured—at the risk of a bad grade or the fear of riling your classmates—to write a paper reciting the argument you know your teacher or professor wants to hear.
Perhaps, you might remember some that happened in our very own NYU community. NYU Grossman School of Medicine, for instance, insisted that its faculty members—who served on the front lines of the coronavirus response in 2020—follow a restrictive media policy that required them to refrain from speaking to the press without advance permission from the university’s marketing and communications administrators. Or you might remember an incident when Professor Mark Crispin Miller, a tenured professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communications, was investigated by NYU after a student in his class called for his firing because he engaged in a controversial discussion about mask efficacy and COVID-19, which was both timely and pedagogically relevant to his course on propaganda. Or the one that happened in April this year when NYU School of Law investigated Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP) over their statement criticizing Zionists.
Now, to be clear, I don’t necessarily agree with the people I mentioned above. But anyone can defend a sympathetic person with a popular opinion. The true test of our commitment to free speech is unsheathed when we are willing to stand up for people whose ideas we hate, and this eagerness to purge and purify, to cancel and punish and tear down, is in no small part responsible for the score we got. In Rushdie’s words during his 2015 interview for NYU News, “To say that you only believe in free speech for people you don’t disapprove of is frankly…that’s what we call censorship if you only permit free speech of an approved nature.”
The true test of our commitment to free speech is unsheathed when we are willing to stand up for people whose ideas we hate, and this eagerness to purge and purify, to cancel and punish and tear down, is in no small part responsible for the score we got.
“I think that the idea that a university is a place where young people are cocooned and protected from things that will challenge and upset them seems to me is the exact opposite of what a university should be,” he continued. “A university precisely should be the place where young people are challenged and made to question what they’ve taken for granted and learn by doing so. That’s the kind of safe place a university needs to be—a safe place for ideas, not for sentiments.”
How astonishing in its clarity.
Some might argue that the First Amendment is only meant to forbid state action against free speech, not private entities. That the state’s power is vastly more influential than the punitive power of corporations. That Facebook can only delete their page while the government can fine and imprison them. That a corporation might be able to fire them from their job, and a university might be able to expel them, but the state can definitely take away their liberty.
However, these occurrences that happen on our social media, on our college campuses, and in our communities are not rare anomalies in the United States. They are acutely intertwined. They are the consequence of an ardent illiberal ideology that has permeated our biggest companies, our media, and our universities. Our concern to repel away the political and legal perils of freedom of speech from the state has eventually led us to this moment where we neglect the cultural threats that are more prominent now than ever. We tend to forget that these entities are the primary agents that shape our entire culture. And as the Breitbart Doctrine goes, politics is downstream from culture, which means the law is likely to flow from our everyday practices, and so this profound cultural shift that loathes free inquiry will not long protect the First Amendment.
Private universities and private corporations have a legal right to use their voices to cancel, intimidate, and punish their fellow citizens. They can utilize their rights to attempt to silence their rivals. But each time they do so, they deliberately undermine American cultural respect for the free exchange of ideas. Their insistence on cancellation and speech restriction means authors like Salman Rushdie and others who are to come after him will be spending 33 years on societal death row because of offenses taken.
Their insistence on cancellation and speech restriction means authors like Salman Rushdie and others who are to come after him will be spending 33 years on societal death row because of offenses taken.
Those people who believe that words are violence are right about one thing. They are right that words can be powerful, repugnant, appalling, and dehumanizing. But to quote an unnamed writer in one of Sigmund Freud’s notes, “the man who first flung a word of abuse at his adversary instead of a spear was the founder of civilization.” That is a clear distinction between civilization and savagery. There can be no justification for obscuring that distinction—whether due to religious sectarianism or ideological orthodoxy of any other kind. This is the excruciating lesson of hundreds of years of human endeavor, yet today it is also a lesson that we—heirs to the Enlightenment and the American experiment—have not recently bothered to uphold.
My thoughts and prayers are with Salman Rushdie and his family. I wish that he will not only recuperate quickly but also live on to tell the world to never take a free and open society for granted. For all our sake.
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