In August of 2022, Salman Rushdie was brutally assaulted at a literary festival in Chautauqua, New York. In the wake of this tragedy, Iranian-born writer Parnaz Foroutan penned a powerful response, which I reread this morning and quote here at some length (it remains extremely relevant):
What happens in a society where freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas are silenced? “It becomes impossible to think,” Rushdie explained in a 2006 interview, “it becomes impossible to have any kind of interchange of thought in a society if you are told there are ideas which are off limits.”
Much will be made of the young man who stabbed Rushdie. Was he radicalized on his monthlong trip to Lebanon to visit his father? Was his act inspired by Khomeini’s fatwa? This New Jersey man, raised in America, how was he corrupted? Fingers will undoubtedly point East.
To bridge this defensive, separated world that America has become, we need the freedom to express our ideas without the fear of being silenced, shunned, persecuted, fired, shamed, banned.
But there are so many young men in America like him, committing atrocities in schools, in supermarkets, in movie theaters, at parades, all in the name of their convictions. The argument shouldn’t be about the nature or the origin of the ideology. Instead, we should ask ourselves what absence of varying, diverse views left them feeling alienated. What echo chamber of dogma bred such rigidity of thought? In response to the London bombings of 2005, Rushdie wrote, “from such defensive, separated worlds some youngsters have indefensibly stepped across a moral line and taken up their lethal rucksacks.”
The miracle of the moment when I learned to read was not a matter of fluency, it was the shattering of a wall. When I entered that attic through a book and looked out of the window beside that hidden girl, I learned something I would never have otherwise known. Books should be triggering, they must shake us to our core, beat at the edifices of our ideas and send them crumbling down so that we can build better, stronger, more complex ones. Dialogues need to cause dissonance, moments that force us to hold conflicting beliefs because it is precisely in these moments of discomfort that learning happens.
To bridge this defensive, separated world that America has become, we need the freedom to express our ideas without the fear of being silenced, shunned, persecuted, fired, shamed, banned. Rushdie explains that we construct our identities through grand narratives, how the idea of nation and family and community are all stories — and the “definition of any living, vibrant society is that you constantly question those stories, you constantly argue about it. In fact, the argument never stops, the argument itself is freedom.