A rather uneventful college commencement season full of the usual platitudes and bromides was shaken up by British novelist Ian McEwan’s refreshingly challenging the zeitgeist of trigger warnings, free-speech zones, and campus censorship at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania this week.
McEwan did not shy away from addressing the current temper on campus, choosing to focus on the creeping group-think in faculty lounges and discussion sections instead of the all too easy targets of Russian crackdowns on free speech or the “industrial scale” state-sponsored censorship in China. McEwan directly confronted the problem of a country rooted in the tradition of free expression under the First Amendment meekly submitting to what he called “bi-polar thinking” — the eagerness of some to “not side with Charlie Hebdo because it might seem as if we’re endorsing George Bush’s War on Terror.”
McEwan criticized the cowardly behavior of six writers who withdrew from the PEN American Center’s annual gala over their discomfort with the organization’s support for Charlie Hebdo. He argued that the time to “remember your Voltaire” is precisely when confronted with scathing speech that “might not be to your taste” and said he was disappointed that “so many authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy.”
Self-censorship or forced censorship on college campuses is growing, with recent instances of progressive speech suppression ranging from protests against Bill Maher at Berkeley to Brandeis University’s reneging on the conferral of an honorary doctorate to the Somali-born feminist and ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali over their criticism of Islam. Rejecting the accusations of racism leveled at Hirsi Ali, McEwan forcefully expounded that “all thought systems, all claims to truth — especially the grand claims to truth — must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery.”
A window into the audience’s discomfort with McEwan’s message can be seen in the fact that the first applause came nearly eleven and a half minutes into the 15-minute speech after a reference to recent deaths of unarmed black men in police custody and grinding poverty — what McEwan called the “ultimate sanction against free expression.” His condemnation of the massacre of twelve cartoonists in their Paris offices by contrast drew near silence.
McEwan reminded Dickinson’s students and faculty that “being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace — it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society.” It is unfortunate that so many in our great universities think that price too steep.
— Mark Antonio Wright is an intern at National Review.