Celebrated British novelist Ian McEwan has given a magisterial commencement address at Dickinson College in support of the principle of free speech in general, of Charlie Hebdo in particular, and against those fellow writers who withdrew from the PEN America Center gala held to award its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo. The address has been posted up as a video and a full transcript by Time Magazine here, and as a video by Huffington Post here.
I won’t bother copying and pasting the whole text, which is available to all. McEwan’s address on the genesis and importance of free speech is concise, pointed, effective, and a fine distillation of accepted thinking on the issue. But I’d just like to highlight and expand on a couple of passages.
We saw scores of American writers publicly disassociating themselves from a PEN gala to honour the murdered journalists of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. American PEN exists to defend and promote free speech. What a disappointment that so many American authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy.
That didn’t include Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, and others, mind. But, as McEwan continues:
There’s a phenomenon in intellectual life that I call bi-polar thinking. Let’s not side with Charlie Hebdo because it might seem as if we’re endorsing George Bush’s ‘war on terror’. This is a suffocating form of intellectual tribalism and a poor way of thinking for yourself. As a German novelist friend wrote to me in anguish about the PEN affair -“It’s the Seventies again: Let’s not support the Russian dissidents, because it would get ‘applause from the wrong side.’ That terrible phrase.”
I couldn’t think of a more effective summary of the case against the kind of overly affirmative identity politics on view in the anti-Charlie Hebdo impetus from the left. And McEwan linked this directly to both campus hostility to some critics of doctrinaire Islam, and the trigger-warning approach to engagement with certain uncomfortable topics: “It can be a little too easy sometimes to dismiss arguments you don’t like as ‘hate speech’ or to complain that this or that speaker makes you feel ‘disrespected.’ Being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society.”
It may seem like too great a leap to link such behavior to apologies for massacre, but McEwan did. He concluded by quoting George Washington: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.” And it seems he feels that some who ought to know better are holding open the gates to the slaughterhouse or washing the butcher’s apron.