Make war on complacency not on people – Paris, January 2015

A French patriot returns from the January 11, 2015  Rally with his children. This scene was taken on the pedestrian walkway that connects the Bibliothecque Nationale de France with Le Pard de Bercy.

A French patriot returns from the January 11, 2015 Rally with his children. This scene was taken on the pedestrian walkway (named Simone-Beauvoir) that connects the Bibliothécque Nationale de France with Le Parc de Bercy.

I have been a visitor in the incomparable city of Paris in the great country of France for almost three weeks now. Less than two weeks ago, Paris and France suffered a great injury, an egregious insult. Nearly twenty people were killed. Their lives ended brutally, undeservedly, and un-naturally.

I am a foreigner here and likely not attune to the subtleties of Parisian emotional expression. I am sure that there are signs that I am missing and others that I am misinterpreting. Yet there are facial, postural, gait and prosodic universals to emotional expression. My reading of those told me that Parisians feel a quiet patriotism and a steely resolve to remain a country of diverse intellectual thought and free expression.

The attacks began on the morning of January 7, a Wednesday and the third day of my class, Introduction to Neurobiology, here in Paris. Since I teach first thing in the morning, I did not learn of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo until after class. As I prepared for class on Thursday, I was thinking of the importance of 1) entertaining all sides of an issue and 2) considering all issues up for discussion and consideration. No topic should be sacred and no viewpoint should be above discourse. Being intellectually free means being able to talk about anything and entertain, at least for a moment, all points of view. The opposite of intellectual freedom is polemical thinking, harkening to an opinion without any possibility of change for any reason.

On Thursday, I came into class and asked that the students write an essay on a neuro-philosophical question, one for which there is no single correct answer. [The question was: If you could re-open the sensitive period as an adult, would you? and if so, under which circumstances?] At the time, I was in the throes of dismay at the lack of intellectual tolerance evidenced by the attacks. Therefore, I proposed that students exchange their papers and defend a viewpoint other than their own, an approach that is essentially a copy of high school debate team rules and also bears resemblance to the rule that every defendant in the U.S. is deserving of representation.

The students were seriously not excited about my viewpoint swapping-idea. I thought about this for quite a while. And upon such reflection, I have come to think that enforced consideration, and even defense, of others’ points of view is exactly what we need to combat more attacks such as that on the offices of Charlie Hebdo. I began to think of the words of Rebecca Goldstein in Plato at the Googolplex, a book that considers multiple questions about philosophy: What is philosophy? What was philosophy in the time of Plato? Is philosophy still relevant? Has there been any progress in philosophical thought since the days of Plato?

I am sure that many of you think that I have forgotten the topic of this post. And yes, I do digress but stay with me, there is a point.

Let’s first consider whether progress in philosophical thought has been made since the days of Plato. Professor Goldstein argues that “Philosophical progress is invisible because it is incorporated into our points of view. We don’t see it because we see with it.” In other words we are using a common shared philosophy to frame questions as well as to discern what constitutes an answer. In this way, philosophy is fundamental to every human intellectual pursuit and in fact to human life as we all use this framework to answer for ourselves: What is a good life? How do I live my life well?

How did Plato approach this problem? Professor Goldstein writes:

“What is it according to Plato that philosophy is supposed to do? Nothing less than to render violence to our sense of ourselves and our world, our sense of ourselves in the world…. The violence with which [philosophical] questions whip through one’s presumptions and certitudes, undermining, overturning, destabilizing, and disorienting….enact an inner drama both terrifying and exhilarating. Inner drama is the essence of philosophy doing its work….Philosophical thinking that does not do violence to one’s settled mind is no philosophical thinking at all.”

And there you have it. Let’s do violence to our assumptions. Let’s do violence to our long held beliefs. Who knows? It may turn out that an assumption or belief withstands the mental attack. And it may turn out that we change our opinion. The answer is not the point. The examination is. To paraphrase the words of Northern Exposure’s Chris Stevens, “it’s not the thing you fling, it’s the fling itself.”

So here is one person’s plea to turn violence toward our thoughts. Let’s upend understood facts. Let’s make war on complacency. Let’s kill narrow mindedness rather than each other.



  1. The angst in your writing is apparent and understood. And while I concur with the thought behind “Let’s upend understood facts.”- as the saying,”Once you get people to understand that what they consider a fact is really just a belief,then education can take place.” indicates-, unfortunately, when a belief is essential and integral to a religion, people think such beliefs are facts and to ‘upend’ them is to willingly destroy their sense of ‘self’.
    Which very few people have the courage to do.


  2. Like Philosophy and Arguments always, being an Indian. Tolerance and Intolerance for the collective Brain would be appear to be two ends of the same neoronal circuit. Brain perhaps needs training to be cool indeed, especially whilst in the collective mode.


  3. I believe in freedom of speech, but I also believe one should not cry fire in a crowded theater. Someone could get hurt. Those cartoons were obscene. How many people have to die?


  4. I wish you took me with you to Paris..

    and on a more serious note as my beloved FRANZ KAFKA said about literary work (or the horrfying event) “must be the ice axe to break the sea frozen in us” Ailona.


  5. It is not that easy nor is it that beneficial to do violence to one’s thoughts because the one thinking is the one doing the violence to the thinking. In other words it is self-consuming.
    One needs more, much more than this if one is to change violent ideology into accepting tolerance. Better culture for all perhaps?


  6. I still think that one has to consider the greater good, think what you want but will my ACTIONS cause harm. Not a good idea to burn a cross or the Koran. Is a cartoon that important? I think not.


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