McEwan defends freedom of expression

McEwan defends freedom of expression

Novelist Ian McEwan has defended free speech in an address to students at a US college, criticising the authors who pulled out of a PEN event that honoured the Charlie Hebdo journalists.

Speaking at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania earlier this week, McEwan said freedom of expression “sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy”.

“Without free speech, democracy is a sham. Every freedom we possess or wish to possess (of habeas corpus and due process, of universal franchise and of assembly, union representation, sexual equality, of sexual preference, of the rights of children, of animals – the list goes on) has had to be freely thought and talked and written into existence,” he said. “No single individual can generate these rights alone. The process is cumulative.”

He said it was “puzzling” that some writers refused to attend a PEN event held to honour the murdered journalists of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo, which is a magazine that is “scathing about racism”, was carried out by “fanatics”, he said. “There’s a phenomenon in intellectual life that I call bi-polar thinking. Let’s not side with Charlie Hebdo because it might seem as if we’re endorsing George Bush’s ‘war on terror’. This is a suffocating form of intellectual tribalism and a poor way of thinking for yourself.”

McEwan also criticised curbs on freedom of expression in the Middle East, where “free thought can bring punishment or death, from governments or from street mob Africa."

He urged the graduates to use their “fine liberal arts education” to preserve the culture of free speech.

“You, graduates, are well placed to form your own conclusions. And you may reasonably conclude that free speech is not simple. It’s never an absolute. We don’t give space to proselytising paedophiles, to racists (and remember, race is not identical to religion) or to those who wish to incite violence against others. Wendell Holmes’s hypothetical ‘shouting fire in a crowded theatre’ is still relevant.

“But it can be a little too easy sometimes to dismiss arguments you don’t like as ‘hate speech’ or to complain that this or that speaker makes you feel ‘disrespected.’ 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. Being robust is no bad thing.” 

Yesterday, The Supreme Court’s unreturned an injunction banning publication of James Rhodes’ memoir Instrumental (Canongate) in what was described as a major boost for freedom of expression.