Stop trying to shoehorn the Salman Rushdie assassination attempt into your weird "cancel culture" BS
No, someone trying to stab Rushdie is not in the same category as students protesting a campus event or whatever other non-story you're outraged about this week.
On Friday, author Salman Rushdie was stabbed multiple times ahead of a speech at western New York’s Chautauqua Institution. Rushdie’s attacker was arrested at the scene and charged with second-degree attempted murder and assault with a weapon. The author, himself, was rushed by helicopter to a hospital in Erie, Pa., where he was put on a ventilator following a series of surgeries. According to his agent, Rushdie “will likely lose one eye; the nerves in his arm were severed; and his liver was stabbed and damaged.” Thankfully, by Sunday morning, Rushdie had been taken off the ventilator and was able to speak a few words.
This horrifying assault is an example of what actual attacks on free speech look like.
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Rushdie has been living under the threat of violence since 1989 when Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author following the publication of his novel The Satanic Verses. Details about the attacker and potential connections to the fatwa are still emerging, and I imagine we’ll learn a lot more in the coming days and weeks. I wish Rushdie a swift recovery.
No one should face physical violence for exercising their right to speak. Period.
The attack on Rushdie is the latest (and obviously, clearly most serious) in a series of stage-rushing attacks.
In May, a man named Isaiah Lee was arrested after rushing the stage during comedian Dave Chappelle’s set at the Hollywood Bowl. During the attack, Lee carried what has been described as a “replica gun with a blade.” Chappelle was tackled, but thankfully, didn’t suffer any serious injuries. After his arrest for battery, and possession of a weapon with intent to assault, police investigated an unrelated incident from December 2021 in which Lee allegedly stabbed his roommate. This led the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office to charge him with one count of attempted murder.
In March, actor Will Smith famously rushed the stage at the Oscars and slapped comedian Chris Rock after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, during the presentation of the award for Best Documentary Feature. Consequently, Smith has been banned from attending the Oscars for 10 years.
Those are all instances of physical violence, and they are all wrong. Sure, they vary in range, but at least they’re in the same category. That doesn’t work when you try to include nonsense about J.K. Rowling getting criticized on Twitter.
Attempts to use the attack on Rushdie to further a “cancel culture” narrative are both disgusting and logically unsound.
There are a bunch of the people who obsess over “cancel culture” who have tried to use the attack on Rushdie as evidence that people who criticize transphobia. Somehow, it’s “cancel culture” if you urge groups not to continue to funnel money into Rowling’s pockets, but it’s not “cancel culture” when, say, a prominent left-leaning listserv has a blanket “no trans people” policy.
I see some are up in arms about this tweet so lemme explain:
1. Hobbes et al. claim that mobbings which destroy people's careers/schooling (& even upend lives) to punish "bad" speech are just "consequence culture." This is a satirical/hyperbolic comment on that, not an equation.
2. Am I being unfair to Hobbes in particular? Nah, he routinely smears and lies, as I think I conclusively documented here (& no this isn't personal - if he's ever attacked me I'm not aware of it. he blocked me after this piece)
3. The "'bad' speech is violence/harm" trope prevalent on the intersectional/social justice left does, in fact, blur violence & speech. If you're upset about my tweet but not, say, about the petition saying Dave Chapelle is "dangerous" & upholds a "violent" culture .... well.
4. Many of the people now in the "anti-anti-cancel culture" corner vocally blamed the victims in the Charlie Hebdo massacre (because, you know, they hurt the precious sensibilities of the "marginalized"). Rushdie had their number.
5. Rushdie was among the co-signers of the 2020 "Harper's Letter" on justice and open debate which Hobbes mocked as "pearl-clutchery" and a "tantrum by the powerful."
As I pointed out then, the presence of people like Rushdie was one of the reasons it was ludicrous to suggest the singers were afraid of criticism, disagreement or mockery.
6. Bottom line: yeah, I think my tweet is fully justified. *Only* legit criticism is "using a tragedy to make a point." But given I tweeted repeatedly about the attack, I don't think I can be accused of being glib about it. Peace out. (Sorry, probably not engaging further.)
The Harper’s letter she referenced was primarily for people who were afraid of criticism or social/professional consequences for their views. Rushdie being one of the signatories does not change that. Had the letter simply stated that nobody should face physical violence for their words and that governments shouldn’t censor speech, critics of the letter would have been supporters of it. But that’s not what the letter said. Yes, Rushdie (and everyone else who signed that letter) should absolutely have the right to speak freely without fear of being jailed or physically attacked. No, Rushdie (and everyone else who signed that letter), does not have the right to speak freely without fear of criticism or social/professional consequences (which can sometimes be positive and can sometimes be negative). This is what the “cancel culture” obsessed seem to miss. They are the ones so invested in conflating criticism with violence, not the other way around.
I think the most telling example from Young is this exchange she had with Ken White of The Popehat Report, in which White tries to gently nudge Young to understand that it’s a little absurd to compare assassination attempts with criticism (in other words, if you’re trying to argue that Rushdie being stabbed is in any way similar to “oh no, a celebrity got criticized for saying something stupid or harmful!” then your brain is probably broken). Naturally, Young responded by leaning into this and… comparing VERBAL and WRITTEN criticisms of transphobes with STABBINGS. This is nonsense.
And, of course, Young wasn’t alone in trying to muddy the waters on this topic. Bari Weiss, whose hypocrisy on issues of “free speech” is well known, weighed in with a Substack post titled, “We Ignored Salman Rushdie’s Warning.” The subheadline, “Words are not violence. Violence is violence,” is deeply ironic given the self-refuting argument she makes within the piece.
Her argument is as follows: some people say words are violence, and that is incorrect; while words can inspire actions, both good and bad, they are not in themselves “violence.” Cool. Glad we agree!
The words are violence crowd is right about the power of language. Words can be vile, disgusting, offensive, and dehumanizing. They can make the speaker worthy of scorn, protest, and blistering criticism. But the difference between civilization and barbarism is that civilization responds to words with words. Not knives or guns or fire. That is the bright line. There can be no excuse for blurring that line—whether out of religious fanaticism or ideological orthodoxy of any other kind.
Except… she then faceplants by making the exact opposite argument, trying to lump critics of Rowling in with Rushdie’s attacker because it supports her own persecution complex.
Today our culture is dominated by those who blur that line—those who lend credence to the idea that words, art, song lyrics, children’s books, and op-eds are the same as violence. We are so used to this worldview and what it requires—apologize, grovel, erase, grovel some more—that we no longer notice. It is why we can count, on one hand—Dave Chappelle; J.K. Rowling—those who show spine.
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. Of course it’s now, when we’re surrounded by silliness and weakness and self-obsession, that a man gets on stage and plunges a knife into Rushdie, plunges it into his liver, plunges it into his arm, plunges it into his eye. That is violence.
Yes, Rowling’s words “literally put trans lives in danger.” That’s true and consistent with the idea that words are not in themselves violence. Her writing about trans issues is filled with inaccurate statements and fearmongering. Her writing about trans issues has been repeatedly cited by anti-transgender lawmakers in their efforts to block legal protections for trans people, and in other cases, cited by those same lawmakers to further restrict trans people’s rights even more than they are. She is free to write and say whatever she wants. And just as importantly, people are allowed to write and say whatever they want in response, including the correct observation that her lies make life more difficult and less safe for trans people.
Also, why did Young and Weiss decide to turn this into another excuse to whine about trans people? How unbelievably inappropriate is it to compare trans people criticizing Rowling for spreading lies and advocating against trans rights with an actual attempt on Rushdie’s life? This is really rich coming from the “words aren’t violence” brigade.
The ACLU’s Gillian Branstetter made an excellent point about what Weiss is actually asking for with her piece:
If you want people to take “cancel culture” seriously, you need to stop lumping in petty nonsense about how every negative interaction you have is somehow equivalent to murder.
One thing you’ll notice about the types of takes Young, Weiss, and the rest of the “cancel culture” brigade put out into the world is that they outright ignore what their ideological opponents actually say. Instead, it gets turned into some sort of “does cancel culture exist?” question, and then trotted out by people on the right to make it seem like people are crazy for not just accepting their absurdly broad non-definition of what “cancel culture” even is. It’s the same exact strategy they used when they set out to “ban the teaching of critical race theory” in classrooms.
The problem is that they refuse to put together a meaningful, consistent definition of what “cancel culture” is.
Here’s an example:
Okay, cool, let’s look at that website (which seems to be down at the moment).
There were 217 entries on this list as of April 2022, but these three, which were listed in a row, really highlight the problem:
So, sure, Morgan Wallen was dropped by his label after getting caught on video calling someone a “pussy-ass [n-word].” Okay.
And then you have Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for showing students a caricature.
And then there’s Kelly Dodd, who lost her role as the spokesperson for Positive Beverage after calling COVID-19 “God’s way of thinning the herd” and wearing a “drunk wives matter” hat in a social media post.
One of these things is definitely not like the others, and if you can’t acknowledge that, you have a problem.
What good does it do to treat them as though they’re the same? They’re not at all the same thing, and not even in the same category. If you owned Positive Beverage (I’m not actually familiar with this company, but really, it could be any company!), would you smile and nod and keep cutting checks to a spokesperson who shrugged off the deaths of millions of people as “God’s way of thinning the herd?” Be honest. That’s the person you want representing your brand to customers and potential future customers, some of whom almost certainly lost friends or relatives to this “thinning” of “the herd?” No, you’d probably realize that continuing to pay this person will only have the opposite intended effect.
Businesses and people make decisions — both good and bad — based on the words and actions of others. That’s not “cancel culture,” that’s “capitalism culture.” Let’s say an editor at The New York Times sees this piece, likes what I have to say, and hires me to write a piece for them on that basis. There’s no problem with that, right? In that case, my words and actions will have endeared me to this editor, and the consequences of those words and actions will have been positive. On the other hand, if an editor at The New York Times sees this piece, wildly disagrees with it and makes a mental note to never publish anything by me, my words and actions will have had negative consequences. Is that cancel culture? No. (I’ve actually had this happen before, not with NYT, but a different outlet. An editor informed me that my tendency to swear on social media got me blacklisted from ever writing anything for them. I suppose I could have turned that into a big “woe is me” thing, but I didn’t because that’s just how the world works sometimes, good or bad.)
If you think, as Weiss certainly seems to, that “cancel culture” is any negative response to any word or action, then you end up having to consider all sorts of hypotheticals. An extreme example might be questioning whether it was “cancel culture” that Subway didn’t keep Jared Fogle on as its spokesman while he was under investigation for possession of child pornography? We can hopefully all agree that Subway not wanting to be tied to Fogle while he was under investigation for horrific crimes was not “cancel culture,” and if so, we can hopefully acknowledge that words or actions can and should have some professional or reputational consequences. When people criticize “cancel culture” discourse, it’s specifically because the people constantly yelling about it in major newspapers and magazines refuse to make such an acknowledgement.
But instead, Weiss, Young, and the rest of the “cancel culture” crew use what has become a catch-all term to selectively shut down speech and actions they don’t like. I say “selectively,” because that’s exactly what it is.
When former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was invited to speak at Columbia University in 2006, Weiss demanded that the dean who invited him to speak be “held accountable.” That dean ended up resigning. Sure seems “cancel-culture-y” to me!
Or, if you’re looking for something more recent, see how Weiss responded to someone trying to get progressive Jewish political cartoonist Eli Valley’s scheduled trip to Stanford University canceled.
Days before [Valley’s] scheduled appearance, the Stanford College Republicans posted flyers around campus containing some of Valley’s work alongside clippings from Der Stürmer, a Nazi-era German newspaper known for publishing vicious anti-Semitic propaganda. The group acknowledged that it did this in retaliation because posters for one of their events were covered up by posters of the group sponsoring Valley’s appearance.
The groups bringing Valley to campus, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, took some of the blame for the backlash. In an op-ed for The Stanford Daily, the groups apologized for including Valley’s work, which is meant to be a grotesque and provocative political criticism, without the proper context. In response, TheStanford Daily published an opposing op-ed comparing Valley’s work to the propaganda of Joseph Goebbels, writing, “To apologize for the flyers but insist on continuing with the event is equal parts absurd and appalling.”
This seemed like precisely the kind of campus controversy that would grab the attention of Weiss, Stephens, and the rest of conservative media: Here was a student group trying to intimidate a speaker out of appearing on campus as scheduled. On the principles of free speech and academic freedom, taking a stand for Valley seemed to be the obvious call. Instead, Weiss praised the article calling for Valley’s cancellation on Twitter, thanking its author.
“Bari Weiss's attempt to get me de-platformed at Stanford, and her smear that my celebration of non-Zionist Jewish culture, politics, and art is tantamount to Nazism, should put an end to the myth that she is interested in a free exchange of ideas,” Valley said in a Twitter direct message. “She is interested [in] silencing the Left and in mainstreaming far-right ideology.”
Valley’s view of Weiss is in line with her own history of activism and protest against pro-Palestinian Columbia University professors during her time at the school. Far from a proponent of across-the-board freedom of expression, she and the Times’ other columnists have been extremely selective about which stories get heard.
Notice how it’s not “cancel culture” when Weiss is the one determining whose words get heard and whose words get silenced. No, it’s only “cancel culture” when it’s something that goes against what Weiss believes in. That is the problem people have with the “cancel culture” discourse. It’s selective, it flattens important distinctions between horrific acts (beheadings and physical attacks!) and free speech (dissent, boycotts, protests). The “cancel culture” brigade sure loves to claim that speech it doesn’t like (dissent, boycotts, protests) is a threat to speech, while sitting mostly silently on actual threats to free expression, like the Republican plan to use obscenity laws to make certain books on LGBTQ topics illegal to sell, the Republican-led purging of books from school and local libraries, and the Republican-led re-writing of textbook standards to remove “divisive” issues. Funny how none of that is “cancel culture,” and yet they think someone speaking out against J.K. Rowling’s factually incorrect rants about trans people (i.e. using their freedom of speech) represents a threat to the very concept of “free speech.” The reason is simple: one of these advances their own agenda, the other doesn’t.
None of this is to say that all speech or all protests are good or function in the name of free speech. Yes, speech can lead to action (Trump instructing his followers to show up to the U.S. Capitol to try to menace Congress into handing him the election comes to mind). The problem is that Weiss and Young can’t seem to land on a good examples of this to use, and seem to believe that saying that Rowling’s words are “harmful” or that she wants trans people to disappear, is, as Young wrote, “halfway to defending stabbings.” That’s… just not an accurate thing to say, and is, in fact, the exact kind of conflation of speech with violence that she claims to stand against. However, you could make the argument that Proud Boys showing up to libraries armed with rifles to “protest” LGBTQ-friendly events, does wade into the murky area between the two. But again, those are never the examples the right choose to use. It’s always just an excuse to drag trans people into things we have nothing to do with. Funny how that works.
For instance, how is what the “Libs of TikTok” Twitter account, which exists to put targets on the backs of LGBTQ people and allies, now an example of “cancel culture?” Where’s the big anti-Libs of TikTok piece from Weiss? Is what LoTT doing “violence?” No, but it certainly seems a whole lot closer to meeting that threshold than people criticizing Rowling (who, just in case it needs to be said, should be able to say whatever she wants without facing physical violence or imprisonment).
This could have been a moment for the “cancel culture” obsessives to come to their senses and to stop pretending that a beverage company dropping a spokesperson over something dumb she said and a man rushing a stage to stab an author are somehow part of the same thing. They aren’t. They never have been. If it was possible for the people who have tried to conflate these things to feel shame, I’d say “shame on them;” but they’ve proven time and again that they don’t actually care about free speech when it’s something they disagree with.