Freedom of Expression

I am in Washington, D.C. today, where I gave a talk on “why liberal education matters” to the faculty, students and guests of American University. Most of the audience had been in conference sessions all morning while I sat glued to the TV watching events unfold in Paris. I lived in Paris for a few years, and I looked with horror at these familiar streets as they filled with the almost familiar sight of terrorism response teams. At another level, I was anxious for the Wesleyan students (and their families) who’d just arrived for their study abroad semester. A city I love was under siege.

The attacks in Paris remind us that those willing to destroy freedom of expression in the name of their own totalitarian commitments can wreck havoc in a society determined to maintain openness and tolerance within the rule of law. I feel immense sadness for those who were slain by the terrorists, and I also feel admiration for those who have taken to the streets of Paris to express their compassion, solidarity and courage.

I began my talk at American University by acknowledging the victims of these heinous attacks. There can be no liberal education today worthy of the name without freedom of expression, without open-ended inquiry and the potential for aversive thinking. That’s the kind of thinking that will often rub some people the wrong way — it will seem to some people “disrespectful” and “uncivil.” That’s the kind of thinking we must protect — even more, that we must stimulate.

Let us cultivate the spirit of satire and of critique, but also of reverence and of affection, in ways that challenge the conventions of the moment. Let us remember the journalists, police and other brave souls who were killed by those who could not abide difference and challenge without resorting to murder.

Let us be worthy of the freedom of expression that came under attack this week in France.



1 thought on “Freedom of Expression”

  1. Fragments from Paris (2)

    Since the massacre at the satirical paper ‘Charlie Hebdo’ on Wednesday, the Place de la République has become the gathering place where Parisians come to commemorate the victims. Thursday evening, the crowd included young people clambering up the monument on the center of the square, waving signs and chanting ‘Je suis Charlie.’ Others simply stood silently, or lit votive candles that spelled out the same message: ‘Je suis Charlie.’
    I had come to Paris for a conference on slavery. But Friday afternoon, I found it almost impossible to concentrate on the speakers. The atmosphere, already strained as people followed the police hunt for the two killers, grew palpably tenser with news of more hostages taken in a kosher supermarket at the nearby Porte de Vincennes. When word came that the three terrorists had been killed – initially, we were told that the hostages were all safe – everyone seemed to exhale at once. In fact, several of the hostages did not survive.
    Going to the kosher market has, it seems, become an act that requires some courage. These were attacks on all of us, aimed at free expression of ideas and, especially today, aimed at the Jewish community. A friend who was to meet me for lunch – the writer and Kafka biographer Jacqueline Raoul-Duval – did not show up for our meeting. Tonight I learned why. Her niece, Elsa Cayat, was one of the twelve victims killed at ‘Charlie Hebdo.’ The only woman. Jacqueline says she was singled out for her religion.

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