I have fallen behind in my posting. Overload is the only way to describe the past couple of months, not least because of health issues involving my husband. We persevere.
Another bit of overload was preparation for my talk at the New York Public Library, which actually went swimmingly. It took place at 1:30 of a Thursday afternoon, and there was a very large crowd. My aim was to demonstrate how current anxieties regarding speech have their origins in the 18th century. For instance, people worried back then not only about offending the feelings of what were considered the "disadvantaged," but there was also the tendency to categorize non-Europeans as large ethnic or racial groups, thus effacing the differences among individuals. This tendency, I would suggest, is part of the "universalizing" narrative of the Enlightenment, whereby we are all "humans," rather than individuals affected by history, tradition, custom, convention, etc. In fact, it is all those historical and traditional traces that one must jettison in order to be "enlightened."
Thus, even some of the most "advanced" thinkers of the Enlightenment, those men Jonathan Israel (a contributor to my book) has referred to as belonging to the "radical Enlightenment," had reservations about "public opinion." They argued for the freedom to publish and to voice their own opinions, of course, which they believed would lead to the discovery of what they called "truth." Truth, however, is not the standard of modern liberal societies, where the free flow of information and opinion drives material progress.
It is not their fault that they could not foresee the advent of a garrulous public square. Among the philosophes, I believe it was only Rousseau who saw this coming. He was very uncomfortable with dissent and disagreement. His solution was to suggest that we all give up our opinions to a "General Will," which we arrive at by avoiding the opinions of others and listening instead to "the voice of duty."
You can imagine that the subject of my talk could have been somewhat arcane for a non-academic crowd, but I livened it up with a remarkable visual presentation. The Mac has its own version of Power Point, which offers some really wonderful effects. I don't think a single person fell asleep.