Karim-Aly Kassam

May 13, 2024

GUEST ROOM | Reflection on Freedom of Expression

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The peaceful protests at Cornell University have been about speaking truth to power with grace and humility. Freedom of expression is a deliberative and thoughtful articulation or speech without fear of censorship or legal penalty. Universities have two concomitant responsibilities: the first is to protect this freedom; and second, to hold those who utilize it to the highest standards. 

A historical example from fascist movements in 1930s Europe is revealing. The confrontation between the Basque philosopher Miguel de Unamuno and the fascist general José Millán-Astray at the University of Salamanca on 12th, October 1936, best illustrates these dual responsibilities.  At the time, Miguel de Unamuno was the rector (like a provost) of the University of Salamanca. The day, October 12th marked the anniversary of Columbus’s so-called “discovery” of Americas, which had precipitated a massive cultural genocide and unleashed violence on the Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Fiery speeches were delivered on that day in 1936, including one by Francisco Maldonado, a professor of history at the university. Mirroring the treatment of Indigenous peoples, he decried Catalan and Basque nationalism as “cancers” to the body of the nation. Maldonado declared that fascism would surgically remove these cancers by cutting into healthy flesh. At that point someone in the audience shouted the fascist slogan, “Long live death!” Until that moment, Unamuno, the rector, had been listening silently. Afterall, the university is a place where freedom of expression is sacrosanct. Giving voice of dissent to speak is the first responsibility of a scholarly institution — to protect freedom of expression. However, the fascist chant “Long live death!” stirred an immediate and emphatic response. Freedom of expression is fine but young men chanting the fascist slogan “long live death crossed an important line in the intellectual life of a university. At that point scholars had to be held accountable to a higher value. Unamuno rose and, describing the slogan as a “necrophilus and senseless cry,” denounced Millán-Astray, prompting the general to cry out: “Death to intellectuals!” Unamuno then spoke about the university as the “temple of the intellect,” in which “Reason and Right” stand opposed to brute force. Unamuno said: “You will win because you have more than enough brute force. But you will not convince. For to convince you need to persuade. And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: Reason and Right in the struggle.” Unamuno argued that the love of life, biophilia, trumps freedom of expression.

The intellectual imperative of a scholar is to speak truth to power with grace and humility entails both freedom of expression and calling out those who misuse that freedom by violently quashing other voices. The assault by counter-protesters on the peaceful encampment at UCLA is a clear example of this impulse.  Monied might and brute force use the very freedom of expression to silence the legitimate and diverse voices of reason and compassion. At that moment, the principle of biophilia, the love of life, demands we call out those forces of malevolence and shine a light upon their motives. At the University, we celebrate and conserve life no matter what the financial or physical cost to our safety and institution. We cannot allow monetary or brute force to violate what is precious to us, the lives of our students. It is through them, the students, that the intellectual health of our societies and civilization depends. We (students and faculty alike) are the ones who have both the responsibility and ability to convince and furnish evidence when injustice has been perpetrated. As fascist forces gather again at the dawn of the twenty-first century, modern-day presidents of universities can learn from the courage of Miguel de Unamuno. 

The accompanying painting inspired the words for this essay. The painting conveys the vulnerability of  human life and freedom of expression. The human figure is androgynous representing neither black, brown, red or yellow but all. The painting is the protest. Like the unclothed figure, Cornell students of all backgrounds, colors, religions, and sexual orientations have made themselves vulnerable by speaking out. International students are under greater threat for fear of expulsion and deportation. Similarly, children of working class families cannot afford academic sanctions on their studies. The poise of the figure invites tenured faculty and university leadership to act with compassion and responsibly. 

Professor Karim-Aly Kassam is Freedom of Expression Public Voices Fellow with the Einaudi International Center. He is faculty in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment as well as the American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program. He can be reached at [email protected].

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