Je Suis Samuel: Freedom of Speech, Cancel Culture, and the Need To Educate

Yesterday’s shocking news of the beheading of French teacher Samuel Paty resonates with- and horrifies educators all over the world. Paty was a beloved teacher in a middle school who wanted to discuss ethics and morality and the freedom of speech using cartoons from the infamous Charlie Hebdo magazine mocking the prophet Mohammed. He gave Muslim students the option to look away. He did all the right things an educator should do in choosing material that was thought-provoking but very educational, understood particular sensitivities and allowed students not to participate, and continued with what was presumably a detailed, complex discussion of the subject matter, examining different sides. And yet, he paid the price with his life for attempting to engage in freedom of speech in an educational context.

As an educator myself, I am so deeply saddened, outraged, and disgusted by the murder of this well-intentioned man that was conducted in the most gruesome way. I’m also outraged at the way the murderer and those who support him could not have the moral complexity and nuanced thought to be able to understand that Monsieur Paty was not personally doing something to mock Islam, but trying to present a controversial topic to his students in a classroom setting. His beheading is the worst possible example of cancel culture, for if we cannot discuss the most difficult subjects in an educational institution, what hope do we have for the rest of society?

Religion, race, culture, and sexuality are extremely fraught topics; they are loaded with centuries of history and baggage, they are often used as means for discrimination, and they become a lightning rod for morality. While teaching, I tend to use a very diverse curriculum, but I am always very careful to listen to those who disagree, whose viewpoints might be conservative, politically incorrect, or generally not “acceptable.” This is important, for we need students to see differing opinions on subjects they may hold near and dear. We all have our hot buttons, or triggers that will be pushed for some issue or other. But a good educator will steer the discussion carefully if someone says something too off-color, or will try to ask more about where this person is coming from and look at the flaws in their logic.

This becomes especially challenging when we are discussing subjects that involve people who have been historically and/or systematically marginalized. It is true that there may be a “right” answer (i.e. there is NEVER an excuse for the police brutality against innocent black people). France has had a long history of not being successful with integrating Muslims into society, and of statistically verifiable discrimination. While I love satires and parodies, Charlie Hebdo is sometimes repulsive and tasteless. In any case, we need to allow the dissenters to speak, to be countered by those who disagree, and to allow discussion to continue in a constructive, healthy way. Not doing so, in my opinion, is what creates all kinds of backlash, trolling online, violent protests, and frightening political climates. We did not listen to the poor, white conservatives in the recent past; Trump gave them something to latch onto, and now what we have is worse than anything we could have imagined. Liberals AND conservatives and people on all points of the spectrum all need to speak out and be heard.

A terrorist/extremist is a terrorist/extremist no matter what the belief system or location. The Chechen-origin Islamic extremist Abdoulakh Anzorov, who murdered Samuel Paty (and who was himself shot by the police), exhibits the same thought processes and behavior as the six Michigan militia man who wanted to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer or the Basque separatists back in the day. These sociopaths generally feel marginalized, on the outside of society, and feel that something valuable of theirs is being attacked or taken away. Horrible deeds committed by these asocial individuals have always occurred through history, continue to occur, and unfortunately probably will always occur to some degree. We need to be watchful both of these individuals and of the social conditions/psychological factors that create these them. Intervention is key, just as we saw in the plot to kidnap Gov. Whitmer, to foil any violent acts.

Many young people today engage in cancel culture, where they do not want to hear, discuss, or read about points of view that differ greatly from their own, due to their own sensitivities. We must learn to separate the personal from the idea in an educational setting, to practice a sense of detachment, even when we may feel very offended or outraged by something. This is not to say that there should not be healthy limits, for sometimes in America there is an excess of freedom of speech that allows all manner of anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-everything hate speech. Facebook and other social media companies have done a terrible job of monitoring hate speech. But I am talking about carefully moderated, academic debate for the sport of it, because that is the only thing that can truly develop our minds and make us better human beings in a world that is becoming frighteningly violent.

Speak, Woman!

Oprah. Hillary Clinton. The late Bella Abzug. Amal Clooney. Renée Fleming. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex. Camille Paglia. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. What do all of these women have in common? If you answered that they are all celebrities and at the top of their fields, that would be correct. But there is something more important I would like to point out: they are all excellent speakers.

Women are often accused, sometimes in very misogynistic ways, of talking a lot. There is, however, much evidence from neuroscience and linguistics that shows this is true. Linguist Deborah Tannen has done a great deal of research on gender and communication, and UCSF neuropsychiatrist Dr. Louann Brizendine’s well-known books on the male and female brains have highlighted both the similarities and differences in our common organ, but asserted that women do talk more (though other academic studies have proved her wrong). Women are encouraged to talk a lot, to emote, use language for expressing our feelings. Many of us enjoy “girl chats,” gabfests where we can let it all hang out, sending each other funny texts, etc.

But what if we also encourage women to learn to speak well, to communicate effectively about the things they want, and not only emotional release? What if we emphasize the need to express ideas with clarity, articulate concepts in our field with precision, and help women to understand that this is a source of power? Regardless of popular opinion (which generally seems to agree that women talk more), we have to recognize that anyone who speaks well in public and in the workplace has a distinct advantage. I am in no way advocating that women need to talk like men or act like men, for I find that this has been a huge error on the part of the feminist movement and this forced a lot of women in the 80s to adopt a “power stance” and a large-scale denial of the feminine aspects of ourselves. But speaking well is not incompatible with femininity. Look at the list of women above: no one would accuse them of rejecting their womanhood. If anything, their ability to articulate themselves makes them stand out more as a woman, for they are not just beautiful and well groomed, but they have something to say and can say it well. Public speaking and effective speaking enhances a woman’s attractiveness; being able to include facts when you are trying to make a case for something makes you even more powerful and credible.

Parents need to persuade their daughters to harness the power of words, not post ridiculous images on Instagram or Snapchat. Teachers in the classroom need to ensure that they attempt to give equal airtime to women and girls, though sometimes females hesitate to speak up in class, as I saw when teaching at a college this past semester. Our society needs to create a culture in which young women, even if shy or introverted, see that it is a source of strength to use the power of words. We don’t need the talk show model of spilling one’s guts; what we need is to exalt role models who feel confident in saying what they need to say. Never underestimate the importance of public speaking.

Watch any occasion Ruth Bader Ginsburg is speaking. You will never see anyone who chooses her words more carefully, even as an octogenarian. Bella Abzug was known for being quite vocal–“I was born yelling!”–but watch an interview on PBS from the 80s, and you will see that she is incredibly sharp and can back up her assertions with facts. Oprah became the queen of emotion on talk shows, but she also had a sense of purpose and her feeling was matched with tremendous perception and intellect. The soft-spoken Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who by all accounts was introverted and shy, still had a core of steel and knew how to conduct herself beautifully in public, very aware of what she was saying and the manner in which she was saying it. Motormouth Camille Paglia talks a mile a minute, but it is because she is a walking encyclopedia and has so much to say as a scholar and writer. Meghan, Duchess of Sussex is unfailingly and incredibly articulate, gracious and womanly, but never afraid to speak her mind, especially when it comes to social injustice–something that was perhaps quite threatening to British society.

These are only a handful of role models and the only ones I can cite to readers as common references, given their celebrity. But think of the women we know in our own lives who are effective communicators and know what they are saying. We can find much to admire in many people in our daily lives, be it an Ivy League professor or a hardware store manager. We still have a long way to go with equality in American society; speaking effectively can help us on that journey.