The brutal assassination of Samuel Paty, French history and geography teacher, on 16 October in front of his school sent waves of shock far beyond France and the teaching profession.
Teachers and journalists are among the favourite targets of zealots and bigots of all stripes because they “foment” tolerance, understanding, freedom and truth. Teachers also encourage the “dangerous” practices of critical thinking, questioning, and free discussion.
There is nothing new about witch hunts, tracking down and attacking the best among us to weaken democracy and chill free thought. What is new is the delivery system of hate and retribution.
The dangers of social networks
Social networks have, in many cases, served human rights and democratic governance. They continue to be, for instance, a critical link among democracy activists in Belarus and Hong Kong. However, they can also pose a serious risk for democracy and our ability to live together.
Just as warfare has evolved from machetes and bows and arrows to automatic weapons and bombs, popular cyber warfare - with its disinformation and propaganda - is now conducted instantly and globally on the Internet.
The Internet has been developed and implemented for business purposes. It was about selling products and services. It also harvests data, where the real money is made, to enable precision targeting of consumers. Its raison d'être was not free expression, but manipulation.
Its marketing-oriented algorithms were used for social media. They had the effect of sorting us into groups in virtual bubbles that amplify our views and isolate us from other perspectives. They help homogenise opinions and polarise our societies. We adapt, sometimes without even realising it, and become part of virtual subcultures that change us and our perception of the world around us.
Social networks need more than tweaking. It is past time for serious reflection and re-design of the information highway based on the public good, free discussion, and democratic institutions. It makes no sense for Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or his counterparts to fix the boundaries between freedom of expression and deception, disinformation and hate speech.
That task will not be easy under the best of circumstances. Freedom of expression is essential if democracy is to flourish, but that same freedom can be undermined when expression is manipulated and weaponised.
The freedom to teach
Samuel Paty was a victim of organised hate and disinformation. However, the ultimate target is our liberties and our democracy.
There is no profession so intimately linked to the values and practice of citizenship as the teaching profession. That means that there is a compelling public interest and responsibility to protect those who practice our profession.
Countless other teachers have received threats and attempts at intimidation by students and parents without physical violence. However, creating a climate of fear chills the exercise of freedom and may even infringe the freedom to teach. It can lead to self-censorship. The beheading of Samuel Paty reminded us that one can die from teaching.
Teachers like Samuel Paty are on the front lines of the fight for decency and democracy. They should have the full support and encouragement of school authorities and leaders. They should never have to respond to brutality and hatred in isolation.
Teachers should be respected by their governments, and by parents and students. Their organisations should be at the table on all policy discussions having to do with the teaching professional and education.
Teaching is a healing art. It brings understanding and tolerance. It spawns open minds, critical thinking, and active citizenship. It illuminates darkness.
Let us honour Samuel Paty. His life’s work was based on the understanding that knowledge and inquiry form the path to freedom and working and living together, just as light illuminates darkness.
Our collective fight must always be against hate and its enablers. Paty and others like him, person-by-person, provide the building blocks of a sustainable future. He honoured his profession. We honour him.
The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda said, “You can cut down all the flowers, but you cannot hold back the spring.”
Je suis prof.
Note: This blog post is based on David Edwards’ address to the Extraordinary UNESCO Global Education Meeting (GEM) High-level segment, 22nd October 2020.