Erna Paris: A rigid belief in freedom is driving France and the U.S. to tragedy

Complements the NYTimes interview (

When my children were young, derisive “Newfie” jokes were all the rage. I didn’t allow them in my house; I’d lived in France as a student and learned enough about pre-war history to know that plural societies can exist peacefully only within an ethos of mutual respect.

Which is why both France and the United States have evolved into tragic political entities. Both their foundational ideologies are dangerously anachronistic.

Take the recent atrocities in France following the conduct of a teacher who pulled out the same caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that provoked major violence in the past. There is no possible excuse for his monstrous medieval-style murder, or for the others that occurred after. But to understand circumstance is neither to assign blame nor to condone violence, a fact historians must constantly emphasize. That France houses almost six million Muslims, the largest population in the West, makes it critical to understand the impact of the Prophet Mohammed caricatures in that country.

The contemporary world will remain a mix of ethnicities and religions as migrations increasingly reshape societies, but when it comes to pluralism, France has a twofold problem. First is its commitment to rigid secularism – a foundational ideology that dates back to the French Revolution of 1789. Second is an absolutist view of free speech that is detrimental to society.

French secularism, which mandates that the public sphere be religiously homogeneous or “neutral,” effectively nullifies one’s right to be accepted for who one is. If you wear a hijab, for example, you cannot be a teacher of children, among other public professions. Your religious obligation to dress in certain ways may “offend” the majority. If you do follow your spiritual beliefs, you will be considered an unassimilated “other” – a second-rate faux citizen who rejects the values of the French Republic.

Complicating this problematic ideology is the aggressive abuse of free speech – a foundation of democracy – to incite social tensions. A teacher who relies on unfettered free speech to teach about Islam through ugly caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed is being knowingly provocative, especially when he facetiously suggests that anyone who might be offended leave the room. This is not an innocent moment. Let us imagine Berlin in 1934, for example. Hitler is in power, but Jewish children still attend school. In the name of free speech and high-level permission, the teacher pulls out examples of Julius Streicher’s caricatures of Jews and suggests that anyone who might be offended leave the room. Such scenarios risk toxic consequences.

There are limits to free speech, as we acknowledge in Canada. In 1990, in the case of James Keegstra, an Alberta teacher who propagated anti-Semitism in his classroom, the Supreme Court upheld the Criminal Code provision prohibiting the wilful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group. And for good reason. Plural societies are inherently fragile.

Like the French, many Americans hold rigid commitments to absolute free speech – and to freedom in general. But it is precisely this foundational ideology of libertarian freedom that is propelling what was the world’s most admired nation into tragedy.

The trigger has been COVID-19 and the politicization of mask-wearing. In a recent study at Stanford University that quantified infections stemming from Donald Trump’s maskless campaign rallies, it was estimated that there were at least 30,000 coronavirus infections and 700 deaths as a result of 18 rallies the President held between June and September.

American “rugged individualism” was first popularized by Herbert Hoover in 1928 when he compared his compatriots to a European philosophy of “paternalism and state socialism,” but the ideology can likely be traced back to the 1776 War of Independence from the British, followed by the cowboy ethos of opening up the West, coupled with a distrust of government oversight. But the downside of libertarian freedom has been a lack of commitment to the public good.

Foreheads furrowed when former San Francisco baseball hero, Aubrey Huff, announced in June that he would “rather die from the coronavirus than wear a damn mask,” and in May when a guard in a store in Flint, Mich., was shot dead after telling a woman that her child had to wear a mask. Both these events expose the tragedy of freedom paired with a weak concept of commonality.

In Canada, our national narrative has shifted over the past century from xenophobia to multiculturalism. How fortunate we are. Sadly, rigid foundational ideologies are likely to continue to threaten social peace as the 21st century progresses.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

5 Responses to Erna Paris: A rigid belief in freedom is driving France and the U.S. to tragedy

  1. gjreid says:

    While I agree that one should be sensitive to the feelings of others, and that in a multicultural society, with many religions, ethnicities, and beliefs, one should not go out of one’s way to insult anyone, or their idols, I do wonder how many religions and ideologies and groups will claim immunity from any mockery or criticism or satire. Will all brands of Christianity, for example, no claim that any criticism or mockery, any cartoon or stand-up routine, is blasphemy and should be punished as such? It took a long time to establish freedom of thought and freedom of expression, and now vast forces, secular and religious, on the Left and on the Right, are mobilizing to enforce conformity, to limit freedom of thought and expression, and to impose censorship and self-censorship. If they succeed, the world will be an even less pleasant place than it is now.

  2. Andrew says:

    I suspect all will to a certain extent, unfortunately. Same also would apply, I think, to extreme secularists, even if not couched in religious terms.

  3. gjreid says:

    Andrew, Hello! Absolutely – secularism can be just as intolerant as religion. Extreme forms of secularism can also be similar, psychologically, to religion, in that they will brook no criticism, and try to suppress any dissent. If Fascism and Communism are taken to be forms of secularism, then they shared many psychological and rhetorical qualities, and values, with religion – the exaltation of belief, the refusal of independent thought, the suppression of criticism – and critics – and the elimination of other ways of thinking and other ideologies. The French Revolution provides a classic example of the intolerance of some radical forms of secularism. Much of the “woke” ideology of today, with its “cancel culture” and its resort to insult and calumny and ostracising people and ideas is a classic example of intolerant secular culture – a sort of creeping Maoism in miniature. Like religion, such forms of oppression cloak themselves in high ideals – defense of the weak, defense of the poor, defense of the excluded, purification and salvation for humankind – and practice self-righteousness on a massive scale.

  4. Andrew says:

    Good comment!

  5. gjreid says:

    Thanks, Andrew!

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