The art of modern terrorism is to perform a single heinous act that directly affects a few but permeates fear throughout society so people change their behavior to avoid being the next target. Consequently, self-preservation through compliance with these terrorists’ demands becomes normal, making the few that dare not to submit appear brave yet insane. But I find it insane that it’s seen as brave to speak freely and critically.
There are few people in my lifetime who have stood in defiance of terrorist threats and fearmongering for decades like Salman Rushdie, who faced another attempt on his life Friday, with a vicious stabbing by 24-year-old Hadi Matar in Chautauqua, NY.
This attack on Rushdie is an attack on all Americans because this single heinous act wasn’t just to end the life of a defiant man but to terrorize the rest of us into censoring our speech lest we face the same fate.
Unfortunately, some feel the need to downplay attacks when people they disagree with become victims of speech terrorism. Columnist Kurt Schlichter called Rushdie a “Trump-hating leftist” the day of his attempted assassination, insinuating that how much we should care depends on the victim’s politics instead of on his humanity or his right to express his politics.
If you claim to be a proponent of open speech and dialogue yet you rationalize or minimize physical harm to your ideological opponents because of their viewpoints, you’re exposing yourself as a hypocrite.
I probably don’t agree with many views that Salman Rushdie holds, but I still recognize the importance of mourning the attack on him because if he can’t speak freely, neither can I.
But the terrorism I’m concerned with doesn’t come just in the form of physical harm but also in reputational and economic destruction from the formation of a culture of cancelation terrorism to force compliance from a fearful populace.
The average American has been gradually and methodically intimidated to socially accept remaining silent on criticisms of an ever-expanding list of topics and demographics. We’ve adopted disclaimer language like “I’m not supposed to say this but . . .” before unleashing poignant critiques, and when we’re fatigued from constantly warning others before we speak, we begin to withhold our voices altogether.
We’ve allowed language terrorists to control not only what we discuss but how we discuss it in fear of losing our comforts and conveniences. We’re increasingly passionless about a protected right that no other country guarantees: the right to speak recklessly and informally without persecution.
Our overvaluation of the importance of self-preservation has allowed us to undervalue the importance of occasionally sacrificing for things outside ourselves that we must preserve — our right to speech is one of them. We cowardly sit back and watch as some are persecuted for expressing themselves because we don’t want to be next on the chopping block.
Salman Rushdie never allowed language terrorists to control his voice, and he didn’t live in constant hiding. He recognized the danger he faced, yet didn’t allow fear to override his desires and ambitions because then the terrorists would win.
We can learn a lot from his willingness to stand against tyrannical people and sacrifice himself in the process. For years I let others speak for me and grew quieter along with everyone else, behaving as the coward that I’m maligning here.
Today, I understand why these language terrorists exist: It’s because there is real power in your voice, which is why they want to extract it from you and make you fearful of exercising your jaw muscles as you see fit.
The language terrorists are thriving because we’ve forgotten how powerful we actually are, and we’ve become soft due to our American daily comforts making us unwilling to experience momentary discomfort for long-term freedom.
Comfortable people have a hard time fighting for what is theirs. Become less comfortable.
Adam B. Coleman is the author of “Black Victim to Black Victor” and founder of Wrong Speak Publishing.