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.

The French Sensibility

(Author’s apologies for missing accents due to formatting issues)

When we think of France, what do we think of? A sense of graciousness, delicacy, wittiness, and light. There is a reason why the French have long dominated the visual arts and that which is related to the image. Beginning with the aptly named Lumiere brothers, the French were pioneers in filmmaking and recorded visual images. Perhaps one has to back up and credit first the early photographers such as Niépce and Florence (who was French-Brazilian) and Daguerre, who made significant contributions to the embryonic art. The Lumiere brothers certainly were not the only inventors to be credited with the development of the motion picture, but their name is synonymous with film and certainly a great source of pride for the French. Georges Melies, another early filmmaking pioneer, is the subject of Martin Scorsese’s visually beautiful film Hugo, which re-creates the magic of Melies’s filmmaking process. The French “New Wave” filmmakers, such as Jean-Luc Godard, were known for their striking black and white images and jump cuts, creating new methods of telling a story other than the traditional narrative. And the brilliant Oscar-winning film “The Artist” pays tribute to Hollywood in a completely non-verbal, entirely visual mode, where the silent film is reinvented so successfully by Michel Hazanavicius.

One need only spend time in France to appreciate the importance of light in their culture. There is a beautiful summer light in the Paris area that creates a feeling of “douceur” or gentleness that permeates their art. The Impressionists harnessed this light, revolutionizing the tradition of realism; playing with the viewer’s cognitive and optical perceptions through their constructions of images based on light, color, shadows, and their unique spatial perspectives. One does not see what is. Rather, one sees an impression of what is, filtered through the artist’s sensibility, and the results are simply stunning. Naturally, one must also pay heed to the pointillists like Seurat, who perhaps were the inventors of the concept of pixels, creating a whole by focusing on the miniscule parts. If one goes back earlier, to the work of painters like Jacques-Louis David, one cannot help but be impressed by his use of beams of light on his subjects, tableaux that were the only visual representation of reality before the advent of the camera.

France’s aesthetic sensibility, one could argue, is iconic. That is, the importance of particular pictures or images drives the perception of art. From the national symbol of the “Marianne” to the classic Chanel or Dior silhouettes, the Tricolor flag, the Eiffel Tower, the love of comics and cartoons, the style of screen symbols like Bardot or Deneuve, the cars like the inimitable Citroen DS, the classic Louis Vuitton luggage and bags, the sleek design of the Concorde—-the list is endless. The French still seem to have an admiration of American icons, such as Marilyn Monroe, Manhattan, the Grand Canyon. The visual element also extends into the French culture’s love of wordplay. One can see on the page (as well as hear), for example, the driving forces of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet—-“l’amour” (love) and “la mort” (death)—-that the doomed heroine sings in contrasting moments of the opera when she knows her position with regard to Don Jose. The linguistic-visual wit can also be seen in the Belgian painter Magritte’s classic painting “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (This is not a pipe), in which the viewer knows and yet knows not that the painting of a pipe is not truly the real object.

It is a culture of the symbol, the image, the visual. What one sees is of great importance: consider the variety of words and phrases to express the action of looking. Other cultures might be more auditory and kinesthetic (like the Italians), more philosophical/inner-reflective, more intuitive, more contextual, or orally transmitted. And each culture’s sensibilities contribute something beautiful to our artistic consciousness. France’s gift is what it gives us to see.