Ian McEwan extols free speech in a passionate commencement address

May 25, 2015 • 9:30 am

At last, a graduation address that says something substantive! (Check out Jeb Bush’s lame and god-toadying lucubrations at Liberty University, and Jeffrey Tayler’s analysis, that I highlighted yesterday.)

Here’s novelist Ian McEwan’s recent 15-minute commencement speech at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. He first tenders some congratulations and a teeny bit of advice, and then gets to his real topic: the value of free speech. This is a great topic for college students, far removed from the usual trite and anodyne commencement-speech bromides. McEwan’s view is similar to mine, and he brings up all the recent issues: the fatwa against Salman Rusdie, the Charlie Hebdo murders, the silencing of Ayaan Hirsi Ali at Brandeis University, the widespread failure to criticize Islamic extremists. This address must have shocked the students—if they were listening. But you should listen, for it’s a Professor Ceiling Cat Recommendation™:

Dickinson has thoughtfully provide a full transcript at this site.

The speech was highlighted by—and once again we must share our bed with conservatives—the National Review, which says this:

McEwan criticized the cowardly behavior of six writers who withdrew from the PEN American Center’s annual gala over their discomfort with the organization’s support for Charlie Hebdo. He argued that the time to “remember your Voltaire” is precisely when confronted with scathing speech that “might not be to your taste” and said he was disappointed that “so many authors could not stand with courageous fellow writers and artists at a time of tragedy.”

. . . A window into the audience’s discomfort with McEwan’s message can be seen in the fact that the first applause came nearly eleven and a half minutes into the 15-minute speech after a reference to recent deaths of unarmed black men in police custody and grinding poverty — what McEwan called the “ultimate sanction against free expression.” His condemnation of the massacre of twelve cartoonists in their Paris offices by contrast drew near silence.

40 thoughts on “Ian McEwan extols free speech in a passionate commencement address

  1. That was outstanding and certainly the students at Dickinson got their money’s worth at that commencement. Also, it was the opposite of the pandering dogma the folks heard from Jeb whats his name.

    1. It was heartening to hear the applause for McEwen was much more enthusiastic than that for Jeb Bush. Although, of course, Bush’s audience think he’s too liberal instead of too conservative.

  2. From the speech:

    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.

    Maybe I’m misreading this, but provided they’re not inciting violence, I do want to hear from the racists. Or, rather, I want to know who the racists are.

    Isn’t this a feature of free speech, that it helps us know who the crazies are?

      1. Yes, I see your point. But it seems like it could be both. For example, if there’s a neo-Nazi demonstration in Anytown, USA, it’s going to be difficult for them to maintain their anonymity, just as a practical matter.

    1. I had a problem with that whole section.

      Yes, we should imprison Nazis who burn crosses on people’s lawns. No, we should not stop Nazis from ranting about mud people.

      Yes, we should imprison people who rape children. No, we should not silence NAMBLA.

      I should also add: while the arguments in favor of gay marriage and pedophilia couldn’t more different, the arguments favoring censorship of the advocates of those positions are indistinguishable. Any reason you might be able to think of for why we shouldn’t allow people to advocate for pedophilia…will have a direct equivalent for why we shouldn’t allow people to advocate for gay marriage.

      And that should be no surprise, for the same holds true for the Nazis. Any argument for why Nazis should be silenced is just as valid an argument for why any other political party should be silenced.

      McEwan even made the point, himself. If you can’t rebut arguments that the Earth is flat, you’ve got bigger problems than the fact that people are trying to convince others that the Earth is flat. And if you can present a good case for the non-flatness of the Earth but can’t present a good case for why sex with children is bad, you’ve really got serious problems.


      1. I saw this speech the other day and loved virtually every bit of it, I also agree with everything Jerry says on the topic on this website. I am a therefore a huge advocate of free speech but in order to protect the public there have to be limits, and paedophilia is one in my opinion. I may be misunderstanding but I think the equivalence you draw between censoring the advocates of paedophilia and those of gay marriage is false. Advocating paedophilia is no different in principal to calling for children to be physically assaulted by adults just because those adults enjoy it. The fact that it is advocating sexual violence rather than physical makes no difference – in both cases it involves causing harm to an innocent child against its will. In all but the rarest of cases the practice of paedophilia causes harm, usually severe and long-lasting. In contrast advocating gay marriage, although controversial, is not advocating for direct, deliberate and serious harm to be inflicted. The arguments for censoring both sets of advocates are distinguishable therefore; one is to prevent sickos inciting harm to children (which may have real and serious consequences by encouraging other sickos to do so), the other is to stop the free exchange of ideas.

        1. In contrast advocating gay marriage, although controversial, is not advocating for direct, deliberate and serious harm to be inflicted.

          But that’s just it.

          You know that gay marriage is not a call for violence.

          I know that gay marriage is not a call for violence.

          But many of the arguments against gay marriage have explicitly been made in terms of preventing violence. Proliferation of AIDS is always on the short list, as well as the avoidance of divine retribution of various forms. And arguments about the “unnatural” nature of the physiology involved inevitably leading to injury, as well. Many have even argued that consent is impossible in same-sex relationships, for reasons that never made enough sense to me to be able to re-articulate. And they’re often not only sincere but passionate in their arguments, with some devoting their lives to the cause.

          Would you be okay with opponents of gay marriage censoring advocacy of gay marriage on those grounds?

          If not, you have no cause to censor advocacy of pedophilia on the same grounds.

          Free speech for ideas you agree with is easy.

          But if you’re not for free speech for the ideas you abhor, you’re just not for free speech.


          1. Two things, though:

            – Clarify the difference between talking about and advocating for. “Arabs are scum” is not equivalent to “Hey, let’s all go out and shoot some Arabs later tonight.”

            – The consent issue makes any risks entailed by gay marriage no different than sky-diving, ie. a free adult choice. It makes pedophilia an inherently criminal act. There is no equivalence.

            1. I should again reiterate that I’m not arguing in favor of pedophilia, but merely for the vital importance of guaranteeing the Constitutional free speech rights of pedophiles — just as I hate Nazis but support their right to march.

              And, in that context, the question of consent is irrelevant. We do all sorts of things with and to children without their consent, from vaccinating them and other forms of medical care to sending them to school to making them eat their veggies and so on.

              An argument that we should censor pedophiles because they wish to do things to children that the children cannot consent to is also an argument that we should censor pro-vaccination campaigns because children don’t want to get stuck with a needle.

              And because I will not shut up in arguing for laws mandating vaccination for all children (with exceptions out of medical contraindication), I will also not shut up those who argue for doing other things with children that I find repugnant.

              Remember: everybody believes in free speech for me, but not necessarily free speech for thee. The acid test of free speech is if you’re willing to grant the right to speak freely for those who stand for everything you’re against.

              Let me give you a very real example: I find censorship even more objectionable than child rape. Child rape is a terrible tragedy for the individual; censorship is the tyrannical crushing of the very souls of everybody who fails to toe the party line. Many child rape victims recover and lead normal lives; in a society with censorship and thought police, nobody ever freely says what they want to say, only that which they think the censors want to hear. And yet you’ll note that I haven’t even hinted at calling for censorship of those, such as you, who are advocating the destruction of this most essential foundation of civilization.


              1. I’m wondering if there’s an argument for appropriateness, and if that’s a limit on freedom of speech? I think the NAMBLA guys should have freedom of speech. It’s not just because of my support for the principle of freedom of speech, but because I want to destroy their arguments with better ones. However, I don’t think they should be able to make their arguments in a primary school, for example.

              2. However, I don’t think they should be able to make their arguments in a primary school, for example.

                Oh, for certain. Freedom of speech doesn’t imply a right to compel others to listen or especially to echo or amplify your speech — not even closely. Indeed, that would itself be a violation of freedom of speech.

                The Nazis were free (if not exactly welcome) to march on the streets of Skokie. They were not free to set foot inside the local synagogue and speak there.


              3. Heather Hastie: “However, I don’t think they should be able to make their arguments in a primary school, for example.”

                That would certainly be a captive audience for them,

              4. Have to agree with you there, Ben. As soon as you decide that some topics or views are a priori out of order, you run into two problems: Where do you draw the line, and who decides? For example, if I can’t say “Coloured people are mentally inferior”*, then why can I say “Muslims are deluded”? Any attempt to draw a line between those results in hair-splitting arguments about race vs religion, or if indeed ‘coloured people’ is a racial characteristic, etc etc etc. There is just no ‘objective’ criteria that will infallibly split off speech that is ‘beyond the pale’.

                So you just have to put up with me saying ‘coloured people are inferior’ and persuade me by argument what a bad idea that is.

                *Not that I personally would say that, ever.

  3. A most excellent speech. As for the relative silence from the audience I think they were mostly rather stunned, as if unaccustomed to considering this view of recent matters brought up by the speaker. I can almost hear their thoughts: ‘what is happening here’?

    1. I agree. The roar at the end was one of massive approval.
      I think they were riveted not disapproving!

  4. A terrific speech, especially in contrast to yesterday’s drivel by JB. It’s strange how the National Review thought the speech a failure since there were minimal applause. Who cares? They could have been silent because they were engrossed, or they were stunned (as Mark Sturtevant said above) or being polite. McEwen’s subject matter was not lighthearted, and copious applause (to me) didn’t necessarily seem appropriate. It’s not like a commencement speech is an open forum clap-fest like the Bill Maher show. I truly hope the students listened and allowed the speech to sink in.

    1. Jeb Bush is a professional politician who left gaps when he expected people to applaud, which they seemed to me to do reluctantly. McEwen was interrupted by applause, and it was loud at the end.

      1. That’s what I was going to say.


        The Jews gap demonstrated something interesting too.

  5. The silence at mention of CH boils down to that problem discussed regularly around here–religious people bake their beliefs in with their identity. “How can we applaud a statement speaking to the identity of who we are or the identity of kind people we know? We shouldn’t criticize someone on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”

    Part of me thinks that perhaps one of the biggest mistakes the United States has made was to lump religion in with other characteristics in the Civil Rights’ Act. (One of those five things is not like the others.) It would’ve been best to have the right to worship highlighted elsewhere, someplace perhaps like the First Amendment where individual rights are not conflated with individual characteristics.

  6. McEwan has recently become one of my top intellectual heroes. He is, in my view, the best novelist in the English language that exists today. But he’s also one of the most sensible and thoughtful critics of religion I’ve come across in a while. I love how he always inserts that anti-superstitious bullshit factor in most of his novels (read his most recent The Children Act for a clear example). McEwan is a great man whom I got to know through Hitchens no less!

    1. The fact that McEwan and Hitchens were fast friends speaks volumes about the characters of both men.

  7. Fantastic speech!!
    I believe that McEwan’s first wife became overly goddy and this has contributed to his excellent anti-religiosity in his novels. Haven’t read The Children Act yet, but have really liked the 5 or 6 other novels of his that i’ve read.

    I felt sorry for him having to wear that ridiculous hat throughout his speech. It kept slipping…must have been very distracting.

  8. Two things stand out for me in this speech. This part in its discussion of how novels open us up to other points of view. I think this can be said for lots of genres and I’ve talked about how I really finally understood how being gay was much bigger than who you slept with by reading the poems written by two lesbian women (who in the 90s found it very difficult to have their work made available I’m sure because of censorship). It is true that totalitarian regimes restrict access to fiction they don’t like. The Nazis burned All Quiet on the Western Front at the Nuremberg book burnings because they didn’t want Germans to have a realistic idea about war.

    The novel as a literary form was born out of the Enlightenment, out of curiosity about and respect for the individual. Its traditions impel it towards pluralism, openness, a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others. There is no man, woman or child, on earth whose mind the novel cannot reconstruct. Totalitarian systems are right with regard to their narrow interests when they lock up novelists. The novel is, or can be, the ultimate expression of free speech.

    And then this bit:

    freedom of expression sustains all the other freedoms we enjoy. Without free speech, democracy is a sham.

    It is true that without open access to information, democracy is unsustainable because ideas cannot be exchanged or shared.

    I hope that the next time someone is tempted to call a liberal arts degree a waste of time, liberal arts grads as only having “half a brain” or to claim some bad ideas coming out of the Humanities (post modernism, hidden theistic ideas) as representative of all Humanities, that someone recalls this speech.

  9. The lack of applause during the speech seems to not be the result of the audience being annoyed at a speaker having the gall to challenge their their right to not be offended. What I am hearing is an audience in rapt silence. What McEwan pounds home is that the important knowledge they have gained is a result of having the freedom to speak, the freedom to think and the freedom to learn.

    Congratulations to all graduates on this very special day.

Leave a Reply to makagutu Cancel reply