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A letter to history and geography teachers, or How to reflect freely on freedom of expression, Part II

April 26, 2021


This is my translation of an article on freedom of expression (Fr. liberté d’expression) by sociologist and demographer François Héran. Composed as an address to history and geography teachers in France in the wake of the murder of Samuel Paty, the article was published on October 30, 2020 in La Vie des Idées, the online journal of the Institut du Monde contemporain of the Collège de France. This is the second part of my translation of the article. My thanks to Éditions La Découverte for their permission to publish this translation on my blog.

Publication details

French article by François Héran
English translation by Urmila Nair.
Journal: https://laviedesidees.fr/
Date of publication: October 30, 2020.

Click HERE for Part I of the translation.

The Translation


How does one teach freedom of expression? By teaching its history, proposes François Héran, a history that is a lot less republican and a lot more respectful of religious beliefs than one would imagine. Instead of making it an absolute, it is time we recognized that the conditions of its exercise unfold in particular times and places.

The article, part II

An offensive or a tolerant freedom?

But then what would you say to a student who points to Article 4 of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which states:

“Liberty consists in being able to do anything that does not harm others”

As political scientist Denis Ramond has emphasized (in two articles he published in the journal Raisons politiques, dated April 2011 and April 2013), two opposed interpretations are possible here: this freedom may be offensive or tolerant. In the offensive reading, which is that of the European Court of Human Rights, every speech or image, even when offensive, feeds public debate and therefore serves democracy. This freedom would benefit everyone, including the offended minority. Such a position is typically “paternalist”: the author of the affront knows better than his victims what is good for them, and considers that the injury will be erased by the extra illumination thus dispensed. Taken to its limit, in this reading, the offended would have to thank the offender for this wonderful lesson on freedom. This would include the case in which the dispenser of the lesson is the head of a foreign state. You will invite your students to illustrate the effects of this theory with the aid of recent examples.

The other interpretation of the right to freedom of expression takes seriously the harm principle, affirmed in 1789, and the principle of respect for belief, proposed in 1882 by Jules Ferry and invoked in the French Constitution of 1958. This is a deeply pluralist interpretation. On the plurality of values, your students will benefit from reading the philosopher Paul Ricœur. In an interview with Anita Hocquard published in 1996 in Éduquer, à quoi bon ? (translatable as “Education, what is it good for?”), Ricœur states:

“We do not live in a state of general consensus on values that are like fixed stars. That is one of modernity’s aspects and is a point of no return. We evolve in a society that is pluralist–religiously, politically, morally and philosophically–where each one has only the power of his or her word. Our world is no longer enchanted. Christianity as a mass phenomenon is dead […] and our convictions can no longer rely on a secular arm to prevail […] Preparing people to enter this problematic universe seems to me to be the task of the modern educator. The latter no longer has to transmit authoritarian content, but he or she must help individuals to orient themselves within conflictual situations, to master with courage a certain number of antinomies.”1

And Ricœur then cites three examples of antinomies: the preservation of each person’s autonomy while entering a public space of debate; belonging to a living tradition without excluding the presence of other traditions; possessing personal convictions while practicing “a tolerant openness towards positions other than one’s own.” You will have to explain to your students that pluralism for Ricœur is not a synonym for relativism; it is a fundamental value of democracy.

How do we choose between these two visions of freedom of expression—as charitable offense and as respect for the Other? One expedient has consisted in reformulating the dilemma in psychological or moralistic terms: you are “courageous” if you persist in offending the Other, and “cowardly” in the opposite case. Teach your students not to fall into such a crude semantic trap. Let us cease to divide the nation by calling those who contradict us “enemies of the Republic” or “enemies of France.” It is an unworthy manner of excluding them from the debate and from the nation. Nobody owns the French Republic. We still have the right to accord a minimum of consideration to believers and non-believers without being accused of complaisance towards murderers. The faithful Muslims who habitually divide the world into believers and “heathens” will then have to draw their conclusions. This is the mental revolution needed for them to be able to integrate into the nation. You will remind your students that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the right to change one’s religion or to cease to believe. This is why Saudi Arabia has refused to sign it. And if an excessively Cartesian student wonders why our secular Republic has such strong ties with the Wahhabi Regime, it would be best to refer the question to the education authority’s laïcité unit.

The advice of Paul Ricœur to educators

A synonym frequently encountered for the so-called “cowardice” of those who dare to take into account the existence of the Other is “complaisance” or “compromised.” In the interview cited above, Ricœur furnishes the antidote to these sophisms:

“Compromise, far from being a weak idea, is, on the contrary, an extremely strong one. There is mistrust with regard to compromise because it is too often confused with being compromised. Being compromised involves a perverse mingling of frameworks and guiding principles. There is no confusion in case of compromise as there is in case of being compromised. In a compromise, each person rests in his or her place, no one is stripped of his or her system of justification.”

This lesson can be applied to the defamatory accusation of “complaisance” towards jihadism or “Islamo-leftism”—the very type of irrational formula of loathing that substitutes insult for analysis and that has no place in democracy. To include the Other’s existence in one’s world vision is not to practice self-hatred; it is to step outside oneself in order to grow. On the condition, of course, that the effort be reciprocal.

In a tweet to Muslim countries, President Macron wrote:

“We will not give in, ever. […] We will always be on the side of human dignity and universal values.”

Dignity being the key word here, I do not advise you to examine the Charlie Hebdo caricatures one by one with your students, but rather to teach a class on the history of political and religious caricatures in France. Your students will understand that in this domain, as in others, there are good and bad instances. Not everyone is a Daumier, a Nadar or a Doré or, these days, a Chappatte, Dilem, Pétillon or Plantu. Cabu’s artistry remains unsurpassed, as does the self-mockery of our sexual obsessions so dear to Wolinski. One is familiar with the Charlie Hebdo front page of February 8, 2006 where Cabu has the prophet, in tears, crying out: “It’s hard to be loved by idiots!” with the caption: “Mohammed overwhelmed by fundamentalists.” The target is clearly defined. By contrast, the caricature “A star is born” by Coco, presenting a naked Mohammed praying, offering an unobstructed view of his derrière, targets Islam tout court. The attacks have since sacralized all caricatures without distinction. How is one to explain to students that we have reached a point at which it is precisely when a caricature is useless, reduced to its most degrading function, devoid of any artistic, humoristic or political dimension, that it is supposed to illustrate the pure state of freedom of expression, and of our highest Republican values including the affirmation of human dignity? No one is bound to do the impossible.

To the question of whether I still have the right, in the country of free expression, to be indignant about the offensive character of certain caricatures without being accused of hating the Republic, the heavy atmosphere that prevails today indicates that the answer is no. Pushed to the absolute limit, free expression no longer tolerates free critique. The constitutional texts I have cited may well evoke respect for beliefs, but the jihadists have attained their goal: they have pushed us to the limit, succeeded in erecting the caricatures as absolutes, such that France is in danger of being isolated. Your students will benefit from reading the wise editorial by Soulayma Mardam Bey that appeared in the French-language Lebanese daily L’Orient Le Jour, October 27, 2020: It states:

“For many French people, the caricatures are today the very symbol of their identity. For many Muslims in the Middle East, they are the negation of theirs. This dialogue of the deaf is currently taking on inordinate proportions, each side draping itself in a purist and somewhat anachronistic conception of what they stand for: the Republic for the one, Islam for the other, as if the two, besides being essentially irreconcilable, corresponded to immutable criteria, impervious to time and space.

In fact, it is just as futile to insist on the oneness of the Republic as the exclusive source of all value, as it is to push to the extreme the Islamic political ideology of oneness, the famous notion of tawhid. Teachers of history and geography, your mission is precisely to remind students that we live immersed in time and space, that our dearest values, including that of freedom of expression, have a history that often originates elsewhere, and that we must maintain our hold on their definitions and their conditions of exercise. I know. This task exceeds your forces, and the official “guidelines” have their limits. But if you want to make citizens, or quite simply adults, of your students, then show them all the elements of the debate, as I have endeavored to do here. Don’t shut them up within prefabricated truths. They deserve better than that.

  1. Translator’s note: Unless a source is indicated, all translations are mine. ↩︎