Now that we’ve reached the ides of June, commencement ceremonies are in full swing. Not only is this a romantic time for students finally untethered from their foster mother, the university, it’s also a great time for notable individuals to give commencement addresses.
While I’ve never attended one of my own graduation ceremonies, I do have fond memories of my brother’s when he graduated from USC. The commencement address was given by Michael Eisner, who was at that time the Chief Executive of the Walt Disney Company. He talked about email. For about 45 minutes.
For many famous or successful people, the opportunity to give a commencement address is also the opportunity to speak about something important to them, something they feel passionate about, in the form of ‘advice’ for the students awaiting their diplomas. This is based, I can only assume, on the idea that a commencement address is the final word these students will hear at this liminal stage in their lives, one last lesson for them to take to heart before passing through that threshold into the ‘real world.’
Back in May, Ian McEwan, for whom I I have had the great pleasure of obsessing over for the last four years (my PhD Thesis uses his work), gave a commencement address at Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He was also awarded an honorary doctorate for his incredible body of work. For those interested, here is a video of his speech:
As well, here is a link to a transcription of that speech, provided by Time magazine:
The content, ‘thesis’ even, of his address was the importance not only of free speech as a human right, but of our need to support and defend it, especially against those who wish to hinder, or even restrict it.
“Let’s begin on a positive note,” he begins, followed by:
[T]here is likely more free speech, free thought, free enquiry on earth now than at any previous moment in recorded history (even taking into account the golden age of the so-called ‘pagan’ philosophers). And you’ve come of age in a country where the enshrinement of free speech in the First Amendment is not an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality.
However, he then turns to the more harsh and ‘negative’ reality which he sees as threatening the ‘life-blood,’ the ‘essential condition’ of the liberal education they have all just received:
But free speech was, it is and always will be, under attack – from the political right, the left, the centre. It will come from under your feet, from the extremes of religion as well as from unreligious ideologies. It’s never convenient, especially for entrenched power, to have a lot of free speech flying around.
He then makes a number of sincere, and sometimes accurate, arguments about the importance, even necessity of free speech:
It’s worth remembering this: 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. No single individual can generate these rights alone. The process is cumulative.
However, and this is where I find myself disagreeing with his argument, his speech soon veers into a personal aside, an example that represents his disappointment in seeing certain individuals who have, in their active disaffections, come to challenge free speech by means of not supporting the use of it by others. This example stems from his disappointment in a number of American writers who publicly disassociated themselves from a PEN gala in honour of the murdered journalists of the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. To further underscore his argument, he refers back to a quote which, he admits, is likely incorrectly assigned to Voltaire (‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’):
American PEN exists to defend and promote free speech. What a disappointment that so many American authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy. The magazine has been scathing about racism. It’s also scathing about organised religion and politicians and it might not be to your taste – but that’s when you should remember your Voltaire.
While the horrific and disgusting terrorist attack on the writers of Charlie Hebdo is inexcusable, I find myself thinking that his argument here is in many ways myopically misguided. He states, shortly after the previous quote:
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. As a German novelist friend wrote to me in anguish about the PEN affair -“It’s the Seventies again: Let’s not support the Russian dissidents, because it would get “applause from the wrong side.” That terrible phrase.
As I will argue in my conclusive statements below, I do not (for the most part) agree that the reason behind those writers ‘disassociating’ themselves from the PEN gala was a decision made by ‘fear’ or ‘apprehension’ in being affiliated with, and thus in support of, Bush’s ‘war on terror.’ Rather, and as I will reveal below, I think this arises from something very different. Likewise, while I do agree that all religious beliefs are ‘worthy of respect,’ at least in the academic use of empathetic methodological agnosticism, I especially find myself disagreeing with his sentiment that ‘free speech’ is somehow inextricably linked with ‘criticism’ or ‘mockery:’
Islam is worthy of respect, as indeed is atheism. We want respect flowing in all directions. But religion and atheism, and all thought systems, all grand claims to truth, must be open to criticism, satire, even, sometimes, mockery.
What I think he has confused here is the idea that ‘criticism,’ in the sense of examination and open and free discussion, particularly related to political, social, and cultural restrictions and amendments concerning ethics, is somehow the same thing as ‘mockery.’ These are not the same thing, or, if nothing else, because of my objective lens, I do not see these as the same thing. One I see as the mythological hope of the First Amendment: the idea that all religious individuals are free to exercise their beliefs in a manner that isn’t harmful, dangerous, or threatening to others. The other I see as a type of bullying: knowingly harassing, inciting, or disrespecting an individual whose beliefs do not match your own, and thus appear foreign, odd, or worthy of insult.
This differentiation, for the sake of simplicity, is the thesis of this post, and the focus of the following discussion.
However, and for pragmatic reasons, my argument against McEwan’s defence of this type of ‘free speech’ is in need of some background data, which I will break into three sections: what I mean by ‘bully,’ a description of a story by McEwan about bullying, and a final argument about empathy using McEwan’s own description.
To better elucidate my use of the term ‘bullying,’ I think it is terribly important to first understand what I mean by the term ‘bully.’ Let’s first look at a lexical example.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term in two ways. First, as a noun:
A person who uses strength or influence to harm or intimidate those who are weaker: he is a ranting, domineering bully.
Synonyms for this definition include: persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, tormentor, brow-beater, intimidator, coercer, subjugator, scourge, tough, heavy, bully boy, ruffian, thug, and attack dog.
Second, it is defined as a verb:
Use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force them to do something: a local man was bullied into helping them.
Synonyms for this definition include: coerce, pressure, pressurize, bring pressure to bear on, use pressure on, put pressure on, constrain, lean on, press, push, force, compel, oblige, put under an obligation, hound, harass, nag, harry, badger, goad, prod, pester, brow-beat, brainwash, bludgeon, persuade, prevail on, work on, act on, influence, intimidate, dragoon, twist someone’s arm, and strong-arm.
For the purposes of my usage herein, I will stipulate the term to mean:
someone who uses force, or the threat of force, either in a manner meant to terrorise, or control, another individual.
A ‘bully,’ then, is someone who knowingly insults, incites, or threatens another. This stipulation will be important later. For now, however, I think it will help if we briefly turn to a discussion of a story, a sort of fairy tale, about bullying, and the healing power of empathy.
In 1994, McEwan published a short little novella called The Daydreamer. Consisting of eight vignettes (chapters) about the early life of a young boy, Peter Fortune, The Daydreamer is, as McEwan describes in the novella’s preface: “a book for adults about a child in a language that children could understand” (9). In each of these chapters Peter learns something new about himself, so that like young Briony Tallis coming to terms with her own existence at the start of his renowned novel Atonement, these chapters become singular moments of self-discovery, blended into a story about a young boy’s coming-of-age. While these fluctuate between fantastical and realistic physical and emotional alterations, one story stands out for my intentions here.
“The Bully” tells the story of Peter’s interaction with a fellow classmate, Barry Tamerlane, who is known for terrorising the students at their school. While the story reflects much of the metaphorical nuance that McEwan is so good at, such as the notion that the bully, as well as Peter’s ability to confront and defeat him with nothing more than his logic, is emulative of an almost Atheistic enlightenment about God’s existence through our own creation, his description of this interaction is quite poignant for my argument herein.
In the beginning, the bully is described as such:
He didn’t look like a bully. He wasn’t scruff, his face wasn’t ugly, he didn’t have a frightening leer, or scabs on his knuckles and he didn’t carry dangerous weapons. He wasn’t particularly big. Nor was he one of those small, wiry, bony types who can turn out to be vicious fighters. At home he wasn’t smacked like many bullies are, and nor was he spoiled. His parents were kind but firm, and quite unsuspecting. His voice wasn’t loud or hoarse, his eyes weren’t odd and small and he wasn’t even very stupid. In fact, he was rather round and soft, though not quite a fatty, with glasses, and a spongy pink face, and a silver brace on his teeth. He often wore a sad and helpless look which appealed to some grown-ups and was useful when he had to talk himself out of trouble. (74-75)
With such an innocuous description, we might wonder, as Peter does, what would make Barry a bully? Peter decides that there are two reasons for this:
- “The first was that he seemed to be able to move in the quickest way between wanting something and having it.” (75)
- “The second reason for Tamerlane’s success was that everyone was afraid of him.” (75)
However, he also adds: “No one quite knew why.” (75)
At this point in the story, and in a random turn of ‘grown-up logic,’ Peter is invited to, and attends, Barry’s eleventh birthday party. This experience shocks him as he finds no trace of the ‘bully’ in Barry within his home environment. In fact, he is polite, and friendly, and refers to his guests as ‘friends.’ He laughs, and plays, and is genuinely polite. Peter, deciding to investigate, finds Barry’s room to be much like his own: “There were books all over the place, a train set on the floor, an old teddy on the bed wedged against a pillow, a chemistry set, a computer game.” (77)
So, he concludes, Barry lives a ‘double-life.’ At home, he is a regular boy, much like himself. Then, on the way to school each morning, he transforms into ‘the bully.’ This thinking sends Peter into a long daydream in which he begins to consider his own existence, particularly after overhearing two girls debate whether or not ‘everything’ in the wider existence is really a dream. If, he wonders, everything is a dream, then he is the dreamer, and everything is thus his own invention. In this same way, he is the creator of all life, meaning likewise that as everything is a dream, then ‘dying’ would merely be the moment one wakes up.
As he’s further considering this, one day alone on the playground, the bully re-enters his life, demanding the apple that he is holding. Soon, a crowd forms. All the other children surround the two as the bully threatens Peter with a beating if he does not relinquish the apple. However, Peter does not hand it over. Rather, he amends his philosophical hypothesis about the world existing as his own dream by adding into it a theory about Barry’s ability to suddenly become a bully:
What made pink plump Barry so powerful? Immediately, from out of nowhere, Peter had the answer. It’s obvious, he thought. We do. We’ve dreamed him up as the school bully. He’s no stronger than any of us. We’ve dreamed up his power and his strength. We’ve made him into what he is. When he goes home no one believes in him as a bully and he just becomes himself. (84)
Then, in response to Barry’s final threat, and in a manner emulative of Genesis 3:6, Peter puts his theory into practice:
In reply, Peter raised the apple to his mouth and took an enormous bite. ‘You know what,’ he said slowly, through his mouthful. ‘I don’t believe you. In fact, I’ll tell you something for nothing. I don’t even believe you exist.’
This revelation works like a tonic, inspiring within Peter an almost sinister justification for the insults he soon directs at Barry. He calls him a ‘fat little pink jelly with metal teeth,’ he reveals his ‘ordinary nature,’ tells the gathering crowd about his ‘teddy’ tucked up in his bed.
Barry begins to cry. The crowd begins to loudly taunt him. His crying becomes sobbing, and the crowd falls silent. Barry sobs into his hands, defeated, the bully now gone.
Later, after the sense of his accomplishment begins to subside, Peter begins to regret his actions:
He had mocked Barry for being fat and having a brace and a teddy and for helping his mum. He had wanted to defend himself and teach Barry a lesson, but he ended up making him an object of scorn and contempt for the whole school. His words had hurt far more than a straight punch to the nose. He had crushed Barry. Who was the bully now? (88-89)
In an effort to reconcile their relationship, while at the same time pacify his guilt, Peter offers an olive branch in the shape of a note that reads: “Do you want to play soccer? PS. I’ve got a teddy too and I have to help with the dishes.” (89) The two become friends, and Peter, after empathising with his enemy, comes to realise his own faults as a bully, and the shocking ease and simplicity there is in taunting and criticising others.
Only Love and Then Oblivion
On 15 September, 2001, The Guardian published an article by McEwan entitled: “Only Love and Then Oblivion.”
As a direct response to his feeling the horrid sense of loss and tragedy after witnessing (albeit, like so many of us, on his television) the events that unfolded as the World Trade Center came melting to the ground, this short article is about love, and empathy, and last words. It is about the emotional bereavement felt at watching such a terrible event unfold.
As well, and in many ways mostly, it is about his own philosophical perspective on morality.
This stems, in this context, from an empathetic feeling of connectivity, of feeling in some way a part of this event, as those most victimised by this tragedy were ‘people like us:’
[…] we remember what we have seen, and we daydream helplessly. Lately, most of us have inhabited the space between the terrible actuality and these daydreams. Waking before dawn, going about our business during the day, we fantasize ourselves into the events. What if it was me?
This, he describes, is the inherent meaning of empathy:
This is the nature of empathy, to think oneself into the minds of others. These are the mechanics of compassion: you are under the bedclothes, unable to sleep, and you are crouching in the brushed-steel lavatory at the rear of the plane, whispering a final message to your loved one. There is only that one thing to say, and you say it. All else is pointless. You have very little time before some holy fool, who believes in his place in eternity, kicks in the door, slaps your head and orders you back to your seat. 23C. Here is your seat belt. There is the magazine you were reading before it all began.
Then, empathy becomes morality via the fact that, as he sees it, no person capable of feeling another’s emotions, or seeing the world through their eyes, would be able to, in any capacity, inflict harm on that person:
If the hijackers had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of the passengers, they would have been unable to proceed. It is hard to be cruel once you permit yourself to enter the mind of your victim. Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion, and it is the beginning of morality.
In a final indictment, he solidifies this notion:
The hijackers used fanatical certainty, misplaced religious faith, and dehumanising hatred to purge themselves of the human instinct for empathy. Among their crimes was a failure of the imagination. As for their victims in the planes and in the towers, in their terror they would not have felt it at the time, but those snatched and anguished assertions of love were their defiance.
Empathy is essential to his sense of morality here, the backbone of his argument that the terrorists on that fateful day had somehow lost the ability to feel what another person felt, to imagine what it might be like to be sitting in their seat, leaving messages for their loved ones, or praying to their own gods.
McEwan’s argument that free speech is a universal right in need of defence and support is indeed appropriate and commendable.
His argument that individuals disassociating with those whose usage they might not agree with is somehow a threat to that right, is not.
This is, I would argue, most apparent in his notion of ‘bi-polar’ thinking. While maybe the individuals who did not participate, or excused themselves from the PEN gala, did so because they did not want to somehow be associated with Bush’s ‘war on terror,’ I think there is a sincere lack of empathy within this idea. Perhaps, we might consider, they were doing so not out of fear of supporting someone else’s agenda, but because they simply did not want to associate themselves with a type of bullying. Perhaps their reasoning for not standing with Charlie wasn’t about a fear of retribution, or of supporting Bush’s campaign against terror. Perhaps it was merely a decision not to stand with someone responding to a bully by bullying back.
In my own personal aside, I’ve never quite understood the reason for doing an act that one knowingly will offend another. Sure, this is free speech, but is it the best use of free speech? For instance, does protesting a soldier’s funeral with signs reading, ‘God Hates Fags,’ really convey a message we all want to stand behind? This is free speech, after all, and we would likely agree with the right to express such a message, regardless of our disagreeing with the sentiment behind it. This is especially the case with this example as the Westboro Baptist church is, legally, representing the First Amendment by speaking un-prohibited. The Supreme Court case Snyder vs. Phelps affirmed this in 2011.
Yet, I might also concede that this is an inaccurate and unfair association in its own way. The publications of Charlie Hebdo and the protestations of the Westboro Baptist Church are in no way related, and I would never simply lump them together as such. However, what cannot be separated here is their equally shared position on free speech, particularly when it is based on statements which convey their central ideals. Because this is free speech granted by judicial law, and upheld by the Constitution, both should be equally defended. In this same way, as well, if we were to employ McEwan’s own notion of empathy, we would further come to realise that standing with Charlie would, via his promotion of free speech, be the same as standing with the Westboro Baptist Church.
How, then, does this relate to bullying? Depending on whose side you stand on, any sort of free speech that comes across as criticism or mockery brings with it a sense of bullying. That is, while due to our liberal educations we might all agree that we need to support, defend, fight for, and eternally use free speech, we also need to recognise how what we say freely might be perceived by others. In this way, we might also consider if offending another’s religion is free speech or free bullying? Is the critical mockery of another’s sacred beliefs something that benefits all of us, or just certain individuals who’s own beliefs centre around the idea that believing in something clearly disprovable, something that fetters scientific, political, and cultural advancement, something that breeds hatred and racism and violence against innocent people, is also something deplorable, backward, and harmful to mankind? In the opposite direction, then, is an attempt at censoring that, or silencing it in any way, an act of free speech or an act of bullying back?
There are clear dichotomies at work here. Like rather obvious stances of ‘your side against mine,’ these lead to stalemates and debates about who is better supporting whose free speech. This, I would say, is central to McEwan’s argument in the commencement address above. Which seems rather odd. He clearly understands humanity’s ability to understand the perspectives of other people. Not only does his empathy-as-morality support this, but so does his description of Peter’s realisation that he himself has become the bully in his own self-defence. Empathy is something that not only comes through in his work, it also seems inexplicably attached to his sense of ethics. Yet, with his statements in the commencement address above, it seems he has either forgotten this, or is revealing the fact that his empathy is selective.
This, I would lastly argue, is where the benefit of an objective lens comes into play.
Because I might methodologically approach these same examples with an objective sense of empathy, it’s arguable to conclude that just as much as we might collectively agree that any sort of terrorist act is an act of bullying, from the other end, we might also see how the critical mockery presented in Charlie Hebdo‘s publications is a similar type of bullying. Given our ability to ‘imagine ourselves into the thoughts and feelings’ of others, we can, if nothing else, at least come to an intellectual or philosophical understanding about why each side believes and acts the way it does, especially when it comes to their uses of ‘free speech.’ In this way, we are at least able to free ourselves from the biased position of believing our free speech is better, or if nothing else, more ‘free’ than another’s.
Finally, I would like to conclude here that this does not mean that empathising with a terrorist who murders writers and cartoonists because they are offended by their critical mockery is in some way permissible, nor is this the same as saying, ‘they deserved it.’ Rather, this is meant as a critical assessment of empathy, and the skewed sense of it I see in McEwan’s defence of free speech. If we are to defend that right, and if we are required to empathise with others who might bully us into refraining from speaking freely, or who wish to silence our voices entirely, perhaps the best way to do that wouldn’t be a further criticism of those whose own free speech we might not like (such as those who disassociate with a group that appears to be bullying back). For this reason, perhaps my larger argument here is really just a defence of McEwan’s fictional philosophy, rather than what he expresses in ‘real-life.’
As such, I think that the McEwan who gave the commencement address at Dickinson college could learn a thing or two from the lessons learned by Peter Fortune.
In a somewhat shameless plug, I’d like to point out that the International Society for Heresy Studies recently published its second newsletter, Excommunicated, and much of that deals with, and discusses, Charlie Hebdo. The individuals involved with the ISHS, and the editors of the newsletter especially, are excellent scholars and wonderful people. It is definitely worth a read:
Excommunicated, Vol. 1, No. 2. 2015.