Culture Wars/Current Controversies

When Liberals Tolerate Political Violence

By Michael Millerman, Compact

The stabbing of Salman Rushdie by a Muslim fanatic on Aug. 12 reminded the world that despite appearances to the contrary, intellectuals aren’t immune to the consequences of their ideas about politics and religion. A free society as we have come to understand it, however, aspires to nullify the mortal risk, believing that nobody should be attacked or killed over concepts that are essentially contested.

This ideal of a free society is hard to maintain. The difficulty is at the heart of the political problem in a liberal democracy. One way to protect against dangerous thinking is no longer to permit dangerous thoughts, curtailing the freedom that such a society is meant to uphold. That is akin to putting out the fire of faction by cutting off the oxygen of freedom and suffocating oneself, as the Founders knew. But permitting unorthodox thoughts and then punishing them for unorthodoxy is hardly a better solution.

What is to be done? If, for example, you believe children shouldn’t be transitioned without a parent’s permission before a certain age and someone else argues otherwise, your dispute isn’t only about abstract ideas. It is about real families, real children’s lives, and the real well-being of society. There is something at stake. Ideas permeate the flesh-and-blood world, through law and other mediums. How do we give them their due? In the case of Rushdie, shouldn’t a free society be unanimous in asserting that there is no justification for the attempted murder of a writer?

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