Two events that took place in New York City last spring and another in France last year suffice to illustrate the singularity of our respective national sensitivities when it comes to dealing with free speech. The first was the heated debate sparked off by a group of writers protesting in a letter about PEN America’s decision to give out a freedom of expression award to Charlie Hebdo. The second was U.S. District Judge John Koeltl’s ruling that New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) cannot stop a controversial ad from running on buses and subway carriages. What did the ad say? Alongside an image of a young man sporting a headscarf, it read : « Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah. That’s His Jihad. What’s yours? ». The work of an extreme right-wing organization including Jewish activists, the poster will thus be available for all to see shortly.
As unimaginable as it may seem, this ruling is in tune with recent decisions by the Supreme Court. In a 2011 controversial ruling that set it on the wrong side of public opinion, the Court stated that the First Amendment protected Westboro Baptist Church’s picketing at fallen soldiers’ funerals. In short, despite the dissenting voice of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the Court reaffirmed that freedom of speech is so central to the US that it will protect offensive -even hateful, protests.
Similarly heated legal debate over public safety and free speech took place in France last year. It focussed over a decision of the Conseil d’État to forbid French humourist Dieudonné -who is famous for his frequent anti-semitic outbursts, from performing his one-man-show. The fact the decision was prompted by Prime Minister Manuel Valls was part of the controversy, but many condemned what they saw as a clear infringement upon freedom of expression (insofar as none of Dieudonné’s performances has ever led to any demonstration of violence).
Both the French and the Americans, it seems, while voicing their profound attachment to the principle of free speech, impose limitations upon it. In France, the hateful ads that were authorized by Judge Koeltl in NYC would be struck down by the “Loi Gayssot”. But we have Charlie Hebdo. In the US, most newspapers decided not to show the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but Dieudonné would be free to hold each and every one of his performances, however distasteful they may be.
In Drawing Blood, published in the June 2006 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Art Spiegelman criticized the news outlets that had “declined to show the (Danish) cartoons, professing a high-minded nod toward political correctness that smelled of hypocrisy and fear”. Should we chastise the US’s concern with decency? Or do we agree with Sanneh when he claims the “atomized Internet age” that has given way to “the non stop commentary of the social-media age” is responsible for an increasing sensitivity to the uses and abuses of language?
Whatever the reason, the fact remains that, on both sides of the Atlantic, there will always be a situation in which one will not be free to speak one’s mind. We remain staunch opponents of anyone who might violate the principle of free speech but, in effect, it has never been possible, and will probably never be so, to exercise it completely. Freedom of expression leads us down the road of tricky debates and paradoxical statements. A quick look at Joyce Caroll Oates’s twitter account will convince you: while she endorsed the protest against the Charlie Hebdo PEN America award, Oates tweeted in favour of PEN which it is “important” we “support”.
Beyond borders and across the seas, in the privacy of their consulting rooms and for the past century, psychoanalysts have been introducing Freud’s golden rule to their patients: free association (which replaced hypnosis) was the method that would lead to uncovering the unconscious; it demanded the patient give up intellectual censorship and freely voice any thought that may have come to mind. If we wanted to joke about it, we could say that psychoanalysis starts with the analyst reminding his patient, in a kind of counter Miranda Decision introduction, that “nothing (he) will say can be held against (him) in a court of law”.
Need it be reminded that free association can only exist where public policy guarantees the exercise of free speech? “Freud and Free Speech: A Conversation Between Psychoanalysis and Democracy”, a colloquium hosted by NYU’s postdoctoral program in psychotherapy and psychoanalysis in October 2013 acted as a reminder that free association (and thus psychoanalysis) can only exist against the more general concern that we be allowed to speak, write and think freely. Yet analytic experience takes us one step further: if free speech is a necessary condition of psychoanalysis, free association brings to the fore the subject’s absence of freedom when it comes to his unconscious. Insofar as we are “employed” by language, we are always saying something other than what we think we are saying. And misunderstanding reigns…
Nonetheless, the “conversation” between psychoanalysis and democracy is of paramount importance. It foreshadows another conversation: one that Jacques Lacan deemed just as necessary and that involves the psychoanalyst and the subjectivity of his time. Lacan, in fact, went as far as to encourage those who cannot stay in tune with the subjectivity of their age to abandon their exercise of psychoanalysis.
In the wake of these conversations, The Lacanian Review Online aims at establishing yet another. Between the psychoanalysts, academics and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic who, to pick up on Lacan’s very words are both « well acquainted with the whorl (their) era draws (them) in the ongoing enterprise of Babel » and « aware of (their) function(s) as (…) interpreter(s) in the strife of languages » 1. We are confident this conversation will prove a fruitful and exciting one. It will provide us with an opportunity to exercise our right to free speech… even if we are aware –as psychoanalysis teaches us- that freedom of speech, as free association, is easier said than done…
1 The full quotation is « Let whoever cannot meet at its horizon the subjectivity of his time give it up then. For how could he who knows nothing of the dialectic that engages him in a symbolic movement with so many lives possibly make his being the axis of those lives? Let him be well acquainted with the whorl into which his era draws him in the ongoing enterprise of Babel, and let him be aware of his function as an interpreter in the strife of languages. » It can be found in “The Function and Field of Speech and Langage in Psychoanalysis”, in Ecrits. Trans. Bruce Fink. Norton Press. p. 264.