Bwog’s chief Lecture-Hopper and free speech enthusiast Mark Hay reports from last night’s panel discussion moderated by David Remnick, (editor of the New Yorker), with Bernard–Henri Levy (philosopher and author), and Peter Awn (Professor of Islamic Religion and Comparative Religion, Director of the Middle East Institute, Columbia), Kent Greenawalt (Professor of Law, Columbia), Philippe Schmidt (President of the International Network against Cyber Hate and LICRA Vice President).
Freedom of speech is a concept beholden to every democratic movement, a concept with a primary place in American history. It is a concept so well defended and so cherished by Americans especially that, GS Dean Peter Awn argues, “to be an American is to be offended.” Indeed, Bernard–Henri Levy goes so far as to say that without this keystone right, all of the freedoms that characterize our lives would fall. Thus we must call in five experts for a panel discussion to mediate our conflicted feelings and repressed censorial urges.
Why is censorship still prevalent? Levy’s answer: words can be weapons, and we fear their potency. We have silently agreed that in cases like the Rwandan genocide, where Levy argues the absence of key words could have prevented the loss of thousands of lives, censorship is certainly in order. But in our Hippocratic quest to do no harm, we have begun to censor too much, to undermine the foundations of liberty by legislating against blasphemy and insult. Levy claims, by doing so, we are in fact fighting for fascism.
The report continues after the jump.
So where does censorship become acceptable, or is it ever? The panelists, moderated by Remnick, seemed quite unclear themselves. Levy initially claimed that one should never hold back from blaspheming, even against the complaints of a religion. Yet even he, when pressed on the issue of Holocaust deniers, sided with the right to censor such voices, claiming that the act of denial is an act of mental genocide, an attempt to eliminate a vital memory.
Awn’s response to this retreat struck a chord with your correspondent, who found him the greatest defender of free speech on the bench, despite his relative silence throughout the proceedings. He aptly noted that it would not be in our interests to legislate against stupidity. Perhaps this stupidity represents a great evil, a deep hatred. But exposing it to the light of public attention and debate should exorcise it from society. Levy could only shoot back that such discourse would be pointless as certain truths are set; no one believes that the earth is flat.
Unfortunately this was the tenor of the night – Levy would make some valid points, backtrack, and then make broad and popular statements on Islam, cartography, the need for unity among publishers in promoting free speech even at the cost of Xeroxing blasphemies, and other areas outside of his expertise. Distractingly, the provocative discourse was peppered by incessant, monotonous harpings from Kent Greenawalt and Philippe Schmidt. The former saw fit only to comment on the forms censorship currently takes in American legality, the latter on the need for more unified ideas on censorship to govern the internet age.
It appears, we would prefer to use such forums to discuss the problems of Muslim immigration in Europe (Levy), the problems of prosecuting hate crimes (Greenawalt), and the problems of monitoring cyber bullying (Schmidt). But as to advancing the discourse on free speech issues, very little progress was actually made.
We learned one important thing. Tired SIPA students, middle-aged Francophiles, and balding Morningside Heights intellectuals want to know, but we do not. Your correspondent was surprised to find the IAB packed with attendees, at least 250 in attendance, all captivated, animated, and eager. But of that collection, the Columbia undergraduate contingency was shockingly low. For a campus so steeped in free speech history, captained by a titan of the legal craft, it is shameful to see such an event, playing host to such great names, populated by those who will soon be too old to speak. We are young – we must learn not to fear blasphemy. Or at least not to fear it in a world beyond Bwog commenting.