Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Defending Freedom of Expression in France

By   Telos

In a notable comment in The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud compares Oedipus Rex with Hamlet in order to describe what he calls “the secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind.” Between Sophocles and Shakespeare, civilization underwent an enormous increase in the control of affect and a withering away of the formerly unmanaged space of some original freedom. Of course Freud was talking about widely separated historical moments, ancient Greece and Elizabethan England. Today, through hyper-acceleration in a much shorter period, we are undergoing a comparable quantum leap of control (see: surveillance) accompanied by restrictions on free speech and free thought unthinkable only a few decades ago.

As recently as the 1990s, the West was celebrating a victory of liberalism and the demise of the Communist system that had previously provided the model for Orwell’s 1984. But what followed? 9/11 and the War on Terror, the operations of social media and the elaboration of tools to track online behavior, and the willing surrender of liberties during the pandemic. Add to that the ideological disciplining that has come to dominate discourse in the cultural and educational spaces: China limits the films that Hollywood can produce, universities restrict what professors can say, and legislatures stipulate what teachers can address in school and what books must not be taught.

This widespread “advance of repression” obviously has multiple dimensions, with different textures in various countries. Here the focus is only on one important aspect, the encounter of Western societies with cultural expectations of Islamic communities, in the wake of considerable immigration as well as the interconnected communication patterns of globalization. Western norms of liberty, let alone the separation of religion from law, stand at odds with cultural habits from many Muslim-majority countries and with certain widespread but not necessarily uniform religious stipulations. In the end, what we have seen is a multi-stage erosion of Western standards of liberty through a series of challenges articulated by advocates of variants of Islamism. The story begins at the latest with the impact of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and especially, one decade later, the 1989 fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. While many in the West rallied to defend the author, many others—including governments and the publishing industry—did not. Western commitment to its own self-understanding as free societies was already weak.

In the wake of the 2005 controversy around Mohammed cartoons in the Danish journal Jyllands-Posten, the hostile response to Pope Benedict’s 2006 Regensburg Address similarly exposed a Western predisposition to cave in to forces calling for the silencing of critical voices: the robust and sometimes violent demonstrations in Muslim countries met timid and self-doubting reactions in the West. When Islamist radicals murdered members of the Charlie Hebdo staff in 2015, for a brief romantic moment the West seemed to rally around the banner of free speech, but the longer term trend has been to accept de facto restrictions, especially in the context of “cancel culture” and practices of “deplatforming” that emerged especially around 2020. It has become normal to try to silence one’s opponent rather than to persuade an interlocutor through argument and evidence. The ideological (“political correctness”) and technological (management of social media) tools to erase one’s opposition have become strong enough to challenge and perhaps overpower traditions of liberty or commitments to free thought.


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