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in this op-ed piece from Le Monde, a French diplomat living in the United States sheds some welcome light on the issues of tolerance, civic respect and freedom of speech in a secular democracy. incited by the terrorist assassination of a French high-school teacher, ife finds these remarks to be a useful framework for open debate both within each society presently – French and American – as well as between them.

Islamist Attack in Paris Suburbs: “Trying to calm social unrest by segmenting society makes for more bitterness and aggressiveness.”

(This opinion appeared in Le Monde, October 20, 2020)

Which is the better way toward a peaceful society: making sure no one is offended, or learning to tolerate offenses? Above and beyond the unanimous condemnation of the horrible crime in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, this question is answered differently by different French citizens, and by different democracies.
In the United States, many commentators are condemning – explicitly or implicitly – the supposed lack of “cultural sensitivity” of non-islamic French people to the “Muslim community” as revealed in the caricatures of Charlie Hebdo. They interpret the murder of the high school teacher as an indicator of a France more divided than ever.
This analysis overlooks the number of very diverse reactions among French Muslims. But it is squarely in line with a movement that has taken hold on a number of American campuses by which professors do well to avoid any reading or any discourse that might make some students uneasy.
For myself, living in the US, the response seems obvious: the current tendency in America leads toward an impasse, whereby the shared space of democratic debate and reason is slowly disappearing. The logical endpoint will be to forbid men to speak of women, or a white person to talk about the sufferings of black persons. The “community” becomes a fortress it is forbidden to leave, for the sake of engendering a community experience which will be the same for all members of the community, impossible to communicate to non-members.

Juxtaposed but antagonistic fortresses
Society is being transformed into a series of juxtaposed fortresses divided by hatred, and the role of public powers is reduced to trying to maintain peace among them by resorting to the judicialization of social relations. This change provokes violent reactions as seen in the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the increased flaunting of political correctness. Trying to calm social unrest by segmenting society has led to increased bitterness and aggressiveness.
The French way, in which blasphemy is not a crime and irreverence is encouraged is, however, not so simple to implement in a society much more diverse than it was in the time of Jules Ferry (1832-1893). A crushing responsibility is laid upon teachers. Their job, as the teacher in Conflans was doing, is to help the adult citizens of tomorrow think about the difficult balance between the need for debate – which requires tolerance – and the importance of life together, which requires respect.
In an open society, this balance should not have to be regulated by law, whose role it is fully to protect freedom of expression in a democratic society. Instead the balance of tolerance and respect is maintained by a host of individual decisions. This is the implicit factor in any society, the civility with which each citizen modulates their behavior, tolerates what seems excessive or offensive, accepting the beliefs of others while daring to affirm one’s own energetically, even at times insolently, but choosing when and how to do that.
By showing his pupils the caricatures published by Charlie Hebdo, the murdered teacher, Samuel Paty, was sponsoring a needed debate, intelligently, courageously. This is the kind of debate to which an open society should never put a stop. We should all use the hashtag #jesuisprof. As for #jesuischarlie, there are circumstances in which I make it mine, and others not.
Jean-Marie Guéhenno (Former United Nations Under Secretary General for Peace Operations)

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