On Friday, April 24, in a lush corner of New York’s Upper East Side, the French Embassy and other organizations will put forth a “A Night of Philosophy” from 7 pm to 7 am, featuring some sixty-two lectures, twelve performances, six art videos, and live music. The organizers have done a spectacular job of gathering together some of the very most important thinkers of our day to expound on a wide range of topics. Simon Critchley will take on the taboo topic of suicide, Kwame Anthony Appiah will opine on honor, and Mériam Korichi has penned a melodrama titled Spinoza in Kiev, which will be performed at 1 am, to cite just a few examples.
One lecture, however, promises more than simple intellectual and philosophical brilliance. It might offer an episode of cognitive dissonance.
At 7 pm, the philosopher Monique Canto-Sperber will help kick off the evening with a lecture on “freedom of speech” in the ballroom of the French Embassy. The crux of her talk? “Can we go along with the traditional concept of freedom of speech which constitutes the liberal state? Or should we reconsider?”
Canto-Sperber is well known among French intellectuals as the director of Research at the National Center for Scientific Research in France and, before that, as director of the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). But she is infamous among academics and free-speech advocates as the censoring force who shut down two ENS events that seemed to her to stand outside the bounds of free speech. Both episodes involved events organized by the Collectif Palestine, which supports the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and both are considered so serious that a high-profile group of academics and thinkers has issued an open letter protesting Canto-Sperber’s appearance at “A Night of Philosophy.”
“For a major event on philosophy, a field that is predicated on free inquiry and intellectual exploration, to give a forum on free speech to someone who, as the head of one of the major prestigious schools in France, was responsible for two of the most egregious acts of censorship of Palestinians and of critics of Israeli state policies, is beyond being a stark contradiction—it is appalling,” the letter reads. Its signatories include such pre-eminent French thinkers as Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Rancière, and Catherine Malabou, as well as US academics Joan W. Scott, Judith Butler, Angela Davis, Richard Falk, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and well over a hundred others.
The “egregious acts of censorship” to which the authors refer took place in 2011, during Canto-Sperber’s tenure as director of ENS. The first event was supposed to have featured Stéphane Hessel, the legendary author, activist, and diplomat who fought in the French resistance, survived Buchenwald and went on to help draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In 2010, he wrote Indignez-Vous! a call to moral outrage and nonviolent insurrection that is widely credited with inspiring the Occupy movement.