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“Freedom of Speech: The Controversy”: Or, Bernard-Henri Levy + Peter Awn, A Love Story

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.

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  • who cares says:

    @who cares It is so ironic that the indeed Paris Hilton of Philosophy on French tv is defending the freedom of expression when he just pushed Fayard edition to drop the publication of Daniel Salvatore Shchiffer latest book ”Critique de la déraison pure”.

  • Alex in Paris says:

    @Alex in Paris “Mental genocide”? What on earth does that mean? BHL (Levy) is a celebrity, not a thinker, the Paris Hilton of French philosophy (as one commentator put it today). Check out his latest and most egregious demonstration of laziness and ineptitude:

  • :) says:

    @:) I <3 PETER AWN!

  • One thing's for sure: says:

    @One thing's for sure: Peter Awn is the best thing since sliced bread.
    He put it very well in the first lecture of his Islam class this semester. Just because someone has the right to \worship an albino marsupial in the basement of Low Library\ and we’ll defend the right to do so, it doesn’t mean that we should stop ourselves from criticizing this as stupid.
    Speaking of which, is there an albino marsupial in the basement of Low Library that I don’t know about?

  • Well says:

    @Well As far as Holocaust deniers are concerned, I see no reason why their speech should be censored; that would only add to their claims of persecution and conspiracy. By censoring Holocaust denial, and thereby forcing it to the margins of society, we allow it a shadowy existence, albeit at the fringes. Holocaust denial allowed into the mainstream, however, quickly implodes when exposed to reason.

    Censorship, even as a tool of “noble” or “righteous” ends, provides the censored speech with an existence that it might not enjoy in mainstream society. Ideas should always be permitted, to live or die by their own merits.

    1. well more... says:

      @well more... this idealistic portrayal of the human intellect assumes that every individual is capable of the same caliber of reasoning and has the opportunities for the same level of education. Blatant fallacies. The marketplace of ideas theory is truly a noble one, but alas, it has not proved itself valid in real life. This does not mean I am for censorship–not by a very very long shot. But I do not pretend that hate speech does not pose a huge problem for American society (many European countries have made it illegal). Holocaust denial is a form of hate speech, and it is dangerous. That being said, it is technically legal. And for that reason, censorship is problematic. Besides, for anyone who has ever been in Bollinger’s class, the cases involving hate speech are muddled and somewhat contradictory. We seem trying to bend over backwards to protect something that leads directly to discord, violence, and sometimes, worse.

      Within a university campus, you are right, I see no need to censor vile and dangerous speech that will never be taken seriously by an extremely educated population–or if taken seriously, at least debated before acted upon. I do not think it is a stretch to not expect this same type of response outside of the ivory tower bubble.

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