On freedom of speech and the culture of offence

Credit: Reuters (https://bit.ly/31pfpR2)

On Friday in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, in the Île-de-France region in north-central France, a teacher was brutally executed by an individual. There is credible speculation that his murderer was was motivated by the teacher — Samuel Paty — having shown a class of teenage pupils caricatures, including of the Prophet Mohammed, from the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo during a moral and civic education class discussion about freedom of speech.

As a lecturer, teaching at mainly British students at universities in London, and non-UK students studying abroad, the murder of a teacher is even more shocking. Unlike Patry, I am not explicitly involved in civic education, but social, ethical and political issues are a dimension of most non-STEM subjects, including mine. My UK students come mainly from the less advantaged strata of London’s demos; faculties, admin and support staff are as, if not more, diverse.

Universities evolved from the drive to seek out truths and honestly communicate the universe of knowledge. In the UK in the last half-century, they have been transformed, from being the province of the elite to engaging half the population with new knowledge. And Paty was engaged in inculcating a love of knowledge in the next generation of university students and citizens.

Not that there could be any justification for such an act, but Paty was showing these caricatures in a discussion about the challenges for the media and society in engaging with images some consider offensive. He may well have been using these images to present the various arguments for and against showing them: those of free speech advocates; liberals who caution against offending others; media proprietors and editors who argue they don’t want to risk the safety of themselves their staff; and Islamists (and some Muslims) who say they find the images offensive.

Conflans-Sainte-Honorine mayor Laurent Brosse was reported on BBC News saying Paty had ‘wanted to open the minds of his pupils’. French President Emmanuel Macron said he had been murdered because he “taught freedom of expression”.

If we respect and trust ourselves and we want to see societal progress, there can be no compromise on freedom of speech and — even more importantly — the freedom to hear what others have to say. We must be able to decide for ourselves. Today, every political leader in the UK should be shouting this from the rooftops.

If someone’s presentation or advocacy of an idea offends you, ask yourself if your own argument and narrative are themselves fragile; ask if you believe you can win others to your ideas or ideology; ask yourself if your belief is held in bad faith; and consider if you may be narcissistic.

In a Facebook post, I wrote about these ideas after the equally brutal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015, and proposed six maxims we might follow, to respond to the phenomenon that horror presented. I reflected on there being no “right not to be offended”, and the way in which today beliefs “are often so closely held that any questioning of them tends to create an almost existential crisis in the person being questioned”. In my Facebook post ‘On changing your mind’, I quote from an interview with The Sun earlier this year given by satirist and political commentator Andrew Doyle, who characterised these phenomena as ‘identity quakes’ and noted:

‘If your whole identity is wrapped up in a politicised worldview and you realise part of it isn’t correct, part of you dies. It is quite traumatic, but we have to embrace that possibility’.

In the post, I also discussed the limits to free speech we have already accepted. Since, we’ve accepted further tightening, broadly around offence, and specifically around discussion of race, culture and racism. Most recently, conservative interviewer, Darren Grimes, has been investigated by the police in the context of comments made on his show by historian David Starkey.

The idea of offence seems to be grounded in bad faith, as it isn’t subject to rational interrogation and, worse still, it is often wielded by people claiming offence on behalf of others. Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show this weekend, comedian and writer Dawn French discussed the political constraints on modern comedy culture and argued that comedy needs to ‘offend a tiny bit to work out what’s funny’. Considering how we respond to offence in comedy and, implicitly, more broadly, she said:

‘Say what you want to say, be free to say anything, and then everyone can be free to have a go at you, to challenge, you or to tune out from you. For any comedian that is the biggest punishment. If no one wants to listen to you any more, then I think you’ve got the message’

The inability of some, particularly former liberals, to criticise behaviour by people from particular religious or cultural groupings — and to claim offence on their behalf — may seem like a modern expression of anti-racism and an attempt not to ‘fuel the racists’ fire’. But the reality is that their attitude infantilises the people in their groupings. It imagines they are not capable of achieving the moral standards of our society, in the same way that Europeans regarded ‘the native’ during periods of their colonisations. It is ‘othering’. You cannot defeat racism by racialising society.

One of the hashtags related to the murder is #JeSuisProf and this nihilistic event is an issue to consider profoundly for anyone involved in education — as I am — or whose children are in the education system. And this isn’t just an issue in France, as our common European culture, political philosophies and history unite our nations in the eyes of the Islamist zealots. A similar attack, thankfully not fatal, but very serious, took place in Bow, East London, in 2011. Four men conducted a premeditated assault on Gary Smith, a teacher of Religious Education at a girls’ school at which most pupils are from Muslim families, whose teaching they considered to be ‘mocking Islam’.

What do we do in universities, where our job is to open students’ minds and help them develop the skill of independent thinking? At my children’s secondary school — which until a decade ago was also a girls’ school with a substantial cohort of pupils from Muslim families — how should teachers react?

Will they stand alone while the local education authority, politicians, the media, and others with influence and a voice, are mute and cowering? Or will they — and we — bravely stand up for our principles, our values, and our fellow citizens and say ‘There is no right not to be offended’?

[Earlier draft published to Friends on Facebook]

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Nico Macdonald

Nico Macdonald

Educator, facilitator and consultant on innovation and creativity. Tutor @CIEELondon @LSBU_ACI / External Examiner @CSM_news. BIG POTATOES manifesto co-author