McEwan & Free Speech

freedom of thought

Benjamin Franklin, 1722 (photo:

Back in the distant epoch when I was a college student, I majored in journalism—not the sprightly “Communications” of today, but the old-fashioned stuff. One of the chief aims of my professors was to instill in us a healthy regard for the “free speech” clause of the First Amendment. Having recently read Ian McEwan’s meaty novel The Children Act, reviewed yesterday on this website, I was reminded to go back and read his commencement address to the Dickinson College Class of 2015 (complete address here), which explored some of the modern challenges to my professors and my old favorite.

In an era when the commencement speakers I usually hear about are the stars of Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and Comedy Central, an English novelist seemed a surprising choice. McEwan, of course, is no second-ranker. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction numerous times, he won it for Amsterdam in 1998; his novels Atonement, Saturday, and On Chesil Beach have won numerous prizes. So one might assume the man had something to say. And what he wanted to say concerned free speech, which he clarified includes writing and reading, listening and, yes, thinking.

McEwan called free speech “the life blood, the essential condition of the liberal education.” It’s one almost unique to Americans, enshrined in the First Amendment not as “an empty phrase, as it is in many constitutions, but a living reality.” Enshrined, but not inevitable, and not maintained without respect for its essence, even its unpalatable manifestations. Free speech, he said, is perpetually under attack from all sides and viewpoints. “It’s never convenient, especially for entrenched power, to have a lot of free speech flying around.”

It’s more than just one of our many freedoms, it’s essential to all the others. Without it, he said, “democracy is a sham.” All our other freedoms need to be openly thought about, discussed, written into existence, and maintained through free discourse, by people of every discipline and calling.

In other countries, as news reports glaringly reveal, free expression and thought is under serious attack. That’s happening in the streets and on the Internet in the Middle East, Russia, Bangladesh, much of Africa, and the Great Firewall of China. But it cannot be taken for granted in the United States at a time of great polarization of public opinion along many social and political fault-lines, and when facing the unresolved challenges of the Internet—challenges to speech, privacy, and concentration of control in a few corporations.

McEwan suggested the graduates might reasonably conclude that “free speech is not simple,” and never an absolute. It has definable limits, but it’s also an error to reflexively label opinions one doesn’t agree with as “hate speech” or disrespectful. “Being offended is not to be confused with a state of grace; it’s the occasional price we all pay for living in an open society,” he said. And, lately, people advocating creation of “safe spaces” have become increasingly thin-skinned.

He closed with a tribute to the literary form of the novel, whose traditions, he believes, embrace pluralism, openness, and “a sympathetic desire to inhabit the minds of others.” Novels thereby build empathy with the situations and fortunes of people who may be unlike ourselves. “Take with you these celebrated words of George Washington: ‘If the freedom of speech is taken away then, dumb and silent, we may be led like sheep to the slaughter.’”

*****The Children Act


(photo: Mike Gifford, creative commons license)

By Ian McEwan -There may be a reason justice is blind, and, in this novel, a woman. Fiona Maye is a British High Court family division judge who must decide, Solomon-like, some of the more wrenching issues of our time. How to proceed when an Englishwoman fears her five-year-old daughter will be spirited away to Morocco by her strict Muslim father, then is? What to do when a pair of conjoined twins must be separated or both will die, but if they are separated, one will surely die? The hospital urgently wants to separate them, but the devoutly Catholic parents refuse to sanction murder. Everyone in reach of the news media has an opinion about these cases, but only Fiona’s counts. She must be blind to distractions, keeping uppermost The Children Act of 1989, “which declares in its opening lines for the primacy of the child’s welfare.”

The Lord Chief Justice describes her as a woman with “Godly distance, devilish understanding, and still beautiful.” But that’s insufficient on the home front. Fiona’s husband has announced his desire to have an affair with a much-younger woman and doesn’t see why that should disrupt their marriage. Fiona’s legendary dispassionate judgment counts for nothing in this situation and is replaced by pure emotion. She throws him out and changes the locks—even though she knows the law wouldn’t back her up in this.

Into her roiling personal situation comes a new case, a 17-year-old son of Jehovah’s Witnesses has contracted a severe leukemia that will kill him unless he has a blood transfusion, which his religion disallows. His parents refuse. He refuses, too, though he’s not quite yet at the age of majority, so within Fiona’s purview. The hospital says it can save him. To establish whether the teenager’s views are what has been purported or whether he has been unduly influenced by his parents and church elders, she visits him in his sick-bed, and from there the pavers from Good Intentions Roadworks take over.

The Children Act is relatively short for a novel today, about two-thirds the typical length—“a svelte novel as crisp and spotless as a priest’s collar” says Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles. He also seems to believe it’s about Jehovah’s Witnesses, but it’s larger than that. Its subject is intractable dilemmas, hierarchies of belief, and unintended consequences. It is the unnavigable intersection between law and blind faith. So there we have it: faith and justice, each blind to the other, fighting primacy, blood everywhere on the ground.

McEwan is a beautiful writer, with a compelling yet accessible style, even for the weighty issues explored here. This is a portion of his simple, vivid description of Adam Henry, the boy needing the transfusion: “It was a long thin face, ghoulishly pale, but beautiful, with crescents of bruised purple fading delicately to white under the eyes, and full lips that appeared purplish too in the intense light. The eyes themselves looked violet and were huge.”

McEwan gives us realistic characters grappling with significant problems that require them to probe every inch of their humanity and interrogate every motivation. Something to both think about and feel. And when I reached the end, I had to wonder whether he meant the last word of the book’s title as a noun, or in Adam Henry’s case, is it a verb?