Night of Philosophy in New York

| Michael Harris |

Thousands of people attended the Night of Philosophy event in New York, from 7 PM April 24 through 7 AM the next morning, held at the French consulate and the adjacent Ukranian Cultural Center across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hundreds of listeners crowded into lectures on a wide variety of topics, while even more people milled around and watched performances whose relation to philosophy was tenuous at best.

Considerable attention had been given in the press to the participation of Monique Canto-Sperber as one of the opening speakers, because of the "cognitive dissonance" between her chosen theme of “Freedom of Speech” and her own decision in 2011, as director of the ENS, to ban two events connected with the academic boycott of Israel. [1] A number of representatives of the press attended her talk, including the journalist from France-Amérique who had published an article on the controversy and the letter of protest.

One of the invited speakers had announced her intention to withdraw from the event but was convinced not to do so when the organizers explained that Canto-Sperber had chosen her own topic. A video of Stéphane Hessel’s speech in 2011 in front of the Panthéon was posted on the event’s Facebook page. [2] (The cancellation of Hessel’s planned speech at the ENS was the first of Canto-Sperber’s acts of censorship.)

Another invited speaker, Omri Boehm of the New School, announced on the event’s Facebook page that

“A change of topic : Instead of speaking of ‘Thinking and Obedience’, I’ll be speaking of ‘BDS, Freedom of Speech, Violence’.” Omri Boehm (11pm French Embassy Ballroom).

Before the talk began, New York activist Peter Hogness was handing out leaflets in the ballroom containing the text of the Open Letter of Protest with the list of signatories. He was ordered to stop by French consular officials, who at one point tried to take the leaflets out of his hand, and was told that if he continued, he would be forcibly removed. After he announced this to the crowd, he was allowed to continue distributing leaflets at the door to the room.

Canto-Sperber’s talk was meant to be a philosophical analysis of the balance between freedom of speech and necessary restrictions. She reminded the audience (including the celebrated philosopher and author Kwame Anthony Appiah, professor at NYU) that certain kinds of speech are restricted in many European countries. In France she mentioned the loi Gayssot against holocaust denial and

The 2010 law which prohibits the boycott of a country as a provocation to discrimination against a nation”. [3]

She added that “all these laws will be more strongly applied in the near future, because very soon a law will be passed that will put these offenses under criminal law, and no longer under the sophisticated common process of rights of the press”. Which law ? How does she know ?

It was at about this time that three students ran to the front of the room and unrolled posters that together spelled out the following message :

January 2011 M. Canto-Sperber Director of ENS forbade a debate on the Israelo-Palestinian apartheid. Freedom of speech for only some is freedom of speech for none ! #hypocrite

Here is a summary of Canto-Sperber’s explanation of her decision. Verbatim quotations are identified as such ; the rest is a reconstruction.

My decision was related only to the nature of the institution concerned, which is an institution devoted to research and argumentative debates, with for and counter arguments. This kind of debate was proposed to the organizers, and they refused it. I went to offer my help to find other places in which they could launch their campaign, making them aware that the call for boycott of a state is forbidden by law in France.

Even if I think that freedom of speech should be as unlimited as possible, holding in this space [which is devoted to scientific research] was not appropriate.”

Maybe I was right, maybe I was wrong, and I am quite open to discussion about that.

It was not because of the content but because of the circumstances, and the school was not the right place for that.

« I would very much like my reasons to be heard and not to be silenced. »

The philosophical point of the talk was not very clear ; she went over her allotted time and walked out of the room at the end, not staying for questions. She seemed to have been caught off guard by the student intervention and looked shaken.

I caught up with the students afterwards, while they were speaking to the France-Amérique reporter. The three students came with several friends, one of whom seems to have filmed at least part of the event. Their protest was taken entirely on their own initiative ; they had not heard of AURDIP and had apparently not read the articles in Mondoweiss or the Nation, nor had they seen the Open Letter (at least not when they initially decided to come ; they may have read the France-Amérique article later). The woman on the right of the photos is a normalienne, studying philosophy. She is teaching French in New York and heard about the Night of Philosophy from one of her students. When she saw that it was headlined by Canto-Sperber, she and her friends decided to stage their protest.

The rest of the evening went more or less as planned, with the crowd becoming progressively younger as the night went on. I left shortly after Omri Boehm’s talk. Boehm identified himself as an Israeli and an academic but not an Israeli academic ; he talked about his activism in opposition to military service in support of the occupation, and hinted that his opposition to Israeli politics was more radical than that. He could envision a situation in which an academic boycott would be appropriate, but he denied that it can be qualified as non-violent, because it silencing Israeli academics is a form of violence. His interpretation of the academic boycott was entirely based on an article of Judith Butler — for whom he has immense respect as a philosopher — in which she argued that interaction with individual Israeli academics is perfectly consistent with BDS, provided they received no institutional Israeli support (to attend conferences or whatever). For this reason, he said, the distinction between boycotting individuals and boycotting institutions does not hold up to scrutiny. [4]