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In my opinion

The Paris attackers’ challenge to free speech is especially relevant to universities

Je suis Charlie.


On Tuesday, Jan. 6, the university librarian wrote to ask me to participate in the second annual “Freedom to Read” event which will be held at Carleton University on the Monday after reading week. I receive a great many such invitations on more or less a daily basis, and it is impossible to accept them all. So my immediate reaction was to decline; but the horrific events in Paris the following day, Wednesday Jan. 7, caused me to change my mind. This attack was not simply a murderous assault on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, but more broadly a challenge to the very notion of free speech, itself a sine qua non of a free society. This challenge is particularly relevant to universities, given the special role which we play in society, a role that perhaps might be thought of as society’s collective “conscience”. Of course this is not the only role which universities play, but it is an important one, particularly in the broad domain of the humanities and social sciences. And thus I hope that the slogan which has been heard at public demonstrations and vigils in recent days, Je suis Charlie, will be embraced fervently by all of us in academic life.

All societies need to have some institution, and/or space, where people are free to say that “the Emperor has no clothes”. There are no absolutes in human thought or human experience, as history proves time and time again. We need to have our ideas, our beliefs, our institutions, challenged continually, however cherished those may be, and whether those relate to our perceptions of the natural world or the human world. And it is this principle which in the microcosm stands behind such things as Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park (where I spent many an interesting Sunday afternoon as a doctoral student), or Pasquino (my favourite “talking statue” in Rome from its days as the capital of a rather illiberal papal state), or satirical magazines such as Charlie Hebdo; and in the macrocosm it takes shape in the principle of “academic freedom”, which we at least give lip service to cherishing so dearly.

Societies need a free press to stay healthy (hello Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). And just as importantly they need universities to be places where a very broad range of opinions and criticism can be expressed, without fear of personal attack or recrimination (the rationale for “tenure”). Universities are “ideas shops”. It is our mandate to push the proverbial envelope, to challenge the boundaries of knowledge and of public opinion; and we certainly do, often with success. I note for example that in November 1960 Britain finally permitted the public sale of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, when a jury determined that it was not ”obscenity” – in large part due to the testimony of academics at the trial.

I believe that the notion of a right to “free speech” does also include the “right to offend”. Indeed, one might argue that universities have a duty to offend, if by that we mean questioning what others hold to be inalienable truths, be it as individuals or groups. Questioning received wisdom is very much what we do, whether it relates to economic policies, policing methods, climate change, the treatment of Indigenous peoples, or any of the thousands of other political, social and human issues with which our society must continually grapple. Challenging the status quo is the primary prerequisite for moving the frontiers of knowledge and understanding.

That said, however, I don’t believe that this constitutes license to say or do anything one likes. Universities, certainly more so than satirical magazines, also have some responsibility to exercise this right carefully, if only to avoid losing it. Our challenges should be respectful, and focus on the ideas, not the individuals who profess them. Good scholarship is not ad hominem; nor does it consider only one side of any question. To do otherwise is to diminish our potential effectiveness. Our specific role is to create a space for measured and thoughtful debate. There may be a time and place for actions that go beyond talking, but universities are rarely if ever that place. If society’s current boundaries are broadly thought to be wrong, then we should certainly advocate change – but advocating aggressive confrontation or demeaning our intellectual opponents is rarely effective in securing real change. It merely hardens views that are already well entrenched. Our aim must be to change minds, not close them.

Charlie Hebdo uses provocative satire in its quest for a better world; universities should use the formidable weapons of empirical evidence and rational argument. But there is surely a place for both.

And thus you will find me in the library on Feb. 23.

John Osborne is dean of the faculty of arts and social sciences at Carleton University. This opinion piece also ran on the Dean’s Blog.

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