I am writing to ask that we join as a community on whatever occasions we can, between now and January 20, the day after the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day observances, to focus on the meaning of civil discourse and freedom of speech. This request is triggered by the proximity of the massacres in France, both at the headquarters of the magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and at the Jewish grocery store, to the US commemoration of the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a great exemplar of non-violent resistance. In both the attack on the Hebdo magazine and the murder of Dr. King, racial and religious bigotry were involved. But that fact alone is not what links these events to us as a university and compels an institutional response.
As a university, we have, I believe, a special responsibility to speak any time we encounter this constellation of suppression of expression and bigotry. We do not teach only subjects and content. We also must model and foster the untrammeled intellectual and personal exploration of ideas and values in an environment of civility and respect for others’ views, regardless of how much they may conflict with our own. While it is understandable that some of the cartoons may have been offensive, the ability to engage in debate and disagreement, and to express one’s views without fear of death, is vital to a civil society and our essential humanity. The bracketed events of the murders of staff of “Charlie Hebdo”–and of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day–bring home once again the deep moral and intellectual importance of the pursuit of learning and free expression at institutions of learning everywhere. The raised pens of the French–the symbol of both learning and expression–make the link perfectly between journalism and the academy.
Just as so many leaders of different nations, and representatives of different religions and political parties joined arms in Paris this weekend to show solidarity against bigoted extremism, so too must we. By pausing, thinking, and discussing these events and our reactions to them we strengthen ourselves as the diverse learning community that we are to display the opposite values. I hope we will all take every opportunity to do this.
I have asked that flags be lowered until next Tuesday so that we are reminded of the meaning to our own liberties and humanity of such tragedies and events everywhere they occur. And equally important, we lower the flag in respect, commemoration, and to remind ourselves to listen to our own “better angels” as we go about the frequently conflictual processes of learning. Perhaps this is what we really ought to mean by “higher” education.