A recent controversy has erupted over 204 PEN members — including myself, Joyce Oates, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Kamlia Shamsie Teju Cole, and more — disassociating themselves from PEN’s decision to award French magazine Charlie Hebdo with the Freedom of Expression Courage Award. The situation has been framed again and again by other writers, so I won’t restate it here. For a good introduction — when there were six rather than 204 of us — click here. And for the full text of the letter, click the image to the left.
I wish to address, for those familiar with the situation, why I support the letter. I would like, also, to express what sort of reassessment took place in light of the response to the dissenters. I also wish to address how all of us, myself included, are responsible for deepening our understanding of freedom of speech and expression, rather than condoning a “support our troops” version of it.
I signed the letter with a sense of relief.
It came from an anonymous sender and echoed statements I’d thought but not voiced. It was a challenge I may not have taken up on my own.
Will you sign this? Do you agree? Will you disassociate yourself from the award?
Here was a small group of writers who felt compelled to say something about the Freedom of Expression Courage Award confusion. These were writers I knew and respected. Some of them are among my favorites.
I am not one of the widely celebrated writers on the list. I, like many of the 204 signatories, am not a household name. I am not wealthy or luxuriously free to sign petitions. I someone doing my best to sort through information to understand the truth. Like most of us, I often fall short in this task.
One of the ways I look for truth is through the act of writing.
That is to say: I write mostly because it helps me understand and feel more compassion for others. Truth and compassion intertwine, are dependent on one another.
I replied to the email quickly: Yes.
The list of supporters grew. Though each signatory issued support for the same letter, we all, no doubt, have different takes on it, and inwardly emphasize different aspects. And though we are all members of PEN, we all have different feelings about freedom of speech. This controversy should, if nothing else, make clear that there is no monolithic view of what, exactly, PEN membership means, nor that there is a single version of freedom of speech among PEN members.
That said, below is how I read the letter, why I supported, and continue to support it.
First, it is important to state: the letter is a letter of disassociation.
It is not a letter, as some critics have stated, to revoke the award or to end the ceremony. I did not wish to be part of the honoring of Charlie Hebdo. I would not have signed a letter that demanded shutting down the ceremony. This may be how some interpret the letter. That is not in the content of the letter. There may be other PEN members who signed the letter because they wanted the award ceremony canceled. That was not my feeling. Instead, I simply wanted to say, I am not a part of this award.
The cartoons in Charlie Hebdo appeared racist to me. They appeared Islamophobic. They appeared anti-Arab. They appeared cruel. I do not speak or read French. I do not know much about French culture. They appeared racist, Islamophobic, anti-Arab, and cruel nevertheless.
When the letter was made public, some bloggers and authors wanted the signatories to know: these cartoons are not racist. They are not Islamophobic, they are not anti-Arab. They are, instead, complex cartoons embedded in a French context I could not possibly understand. I don’t know how these bloggers could claim to understand this counter-truth without themselves understanding French culture, but I paused. Perhaps they were right.
Then there was an anti-racism organization in France – a “leading anti-racism” organization, I was told – stating Charlie Hebdo was itself anti-racist. Short, translated blurbs from the organization circulated. Again, these were mostly circulated by non-French-speaking people not embedded in French culture. This was touted as proof that I and the other signatories were fools, or worse. It didn’t matter that many of the circulators had not heard of the organization – SOS Racisme – until the PEN controversy. The statements held the puzzling but irrefutable might of a magic bullet.
I was confused. On the one hand, I was supposed to not trust what I saw of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, because I didn’t understand French culture. On the other, I was expected to completely understand the complexities of this organization, SOS Racisme. Many of the bloggers likely understood both no better or worse than I. I looked up what I could. I communicated with French-speaking people. I discovered that SOS Racisme itself holds a contentious position and has been criticized by French leftists and French Muslims for some of its actions and policies. I also was told that Charlie Hebdo is racist by French people.
I was left, therefore, in a more complicated version of where I started.
So I tried to imagine analogues. For SOS Racisme, I imagined the HRC, a gay and lesbian rights group in the US that has a rocky relationship with many marginalized people. They have neglected trans people, they have paired with conservatives, they have divided a progressive cause, and pushed a largely mainstreamed and too-cute version of “gay rights.” I’ll bet many people in non-English-speaking countries think the HRC represents all queer people. They do not. They do not represent radical values. Perhaps this is a false analogy.
For Charlie Hebdo, I wanted to recognize the limits of my knowledge and assume, for the time being, that they are not, in fact, a directly racist publication. I tried to imagine their US counterpart: TV shows like Family Guy or South Park. These shows are irreverent, offensive, silly, angry, harsh. Sometimes they make me laugh. They use racism to make fun of racists. I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile trade-off. They attack religion, not just religious institutional hypocrisy. They are the subject of debate amongst American leftists. Again, perhaps this is a false analogy. I am trying my best to understand.
No matter what else is said about Charlie Hebdo, it is true that secularism is used as a weapon against deeply held religious identity. Secularism is being used strategically – by Charlie Hebdo in total lockstep with many members of the French government – to “banalize” Islam. No one, whether disassociating from the award or defending the magazine, questions this. No one at Charlie Hebdo can deny this: “banalize” is a quote from one of its murdered staff. That should be kept in mind.
I do not mean to ban dissections or critiques of religion. I and my many communities – queer, sex worker, Arab – are frequently attacked by certain religious institutions and people.
Charlie Hebdo does not just attack power, but identity. Whether or not this is “racism” is murky. But we can see clearly: demanding what many find sacred be turned into profane, be “banalized,” is not an attack on power, it is an attack on identity. In the case of Charlie Hebdo, it is – as the letter indicates – an attack on the identities of marginalized people. Perhaps because I am not French, I fail to understand?
The struggle for a more secular world does not need to be imperialist. But if you replace “kill the marginalized person” with “kill the marginalized identity” then it surely is.
Perhaps, then, it is not a surprise that the PEN member who most supported Charlie Hebdo for the award also supports liberation wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, a combination of kill the person and kill the identity.
When the criticisms of signatories came, we were attacked, Charlie Hebdo-style.
We were called “pussies” and “stupid” and “pro-terrorist.”
“The struggle between the two worlds can permit no compromises,” said Mussolini.
“Either you are with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” said George W. Bush.
Now we are being told the same thing by “leftist” writers who care about “freedom.”
There is no room for human beings or disagreement in a clash of mystified, archetypal ideologies. There is no room, either, to dissent, even in plain language.
“Us” in the case of this letter means the “free” world, filled with “free” speech. “Terrorists” were, well, everyone else. We the signatories were with the terrorists, apparently. How dare we not share a total (totalitarian?) unified vision — defined by people other than ourselves — of free speech?
I am not used to being told I am with terrorists or that I don’t embrace free speech.
If I am with the terrorists, if I don’t embrace and support free speech I can’t imagine how. I have been verbally and physically attacked and threatened by many forms of extremism: anti-gay extremism, anti-Arab extremism, and most often these days, anti-sex work extremism.
As a porn performer for nearly eight years, I have, like most porn performers, risked discrimination, stigma, ridicule, travel restrictions, and threats for doing what I do. These are risks taken on by all porn performers either intentionally in the name of free speech or as an unexpected consequence of bearing the burden of free speech.
I portray a sort of expression that many refuse to even acknowledge as expression.
There is no PEN award for sex workers. Even “enlightened” and “literary” people, even staunch leftists condemn porn performers. They say we are brainwashed. They say we are stupid. They say we are making the world a worse place. I don’t have space to discredit the arguments here, but it should be obvious that the sex worker community carries quite a heavy burden of free speech, especially free speech about sex and sexuality. Perhaps, in shouldering that burden, we even help lighten it for others.
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, whether blatantly or ironically racist, are sex-negative. They use sex as the punchline to attack power. This demeans sex in a way that pornography, which actually portrays the sexual act, never can or will. Porn, particularly bad porn, might make sex simplistic, but it does not sacrifice sex to destroy people.
There is a long tradition of jokingly using sexual imagery to attack people in power. Have I ever laughed at it? Yes. Does Charlie Hebdo occasionally contain sex-positive cartoons? Sure.
Do I think it balances the its sex negativity out with sex positivity, or that its expressions of sex as a punchline deserves a PEN award for courage? No.
This was not in the letter. I did not feel it necessary to add it, but it played into my decision to sign the statement.
I do not think, as has been suggested, that Charlie Hebdo should be banned. Thankfully, that idea is not in the letter I signed. There is a call in the letter for responsibility in the way we treat each other and interact with one another. There is a call to notice all human suffering and all violence.
In one critique of anti-dissenters, a writer boldly declared that leftists should aspire to be blasphemous. It is unclear to me whether or not anyone who is not religious can actually blaspheme. For if to blaspheme is to rail against a God that does not exist or to vulgarize things that have no sacred value, then it is to accomplish nothing. Either we are atheists with nothing the blaspheme, or we are religious and wish to be kind in the eyes of God. In any case, I don’t think we should aspire to be blasphemous.
The people who walked into the offices of Charlie Hebdo and shot the staff members were, certainly, blasphemous to the faith of Islam. Blasphemous by murdering, blasphemous by demanding non-Muslims follow the tenants of (an extremist version of) Islam, and blasphemous in saying there was no room to critique Islam.
Crying for blasphemy when you do not believe in the God you’re insulting is a child’s game. It is merely a cry for defiance. Defiance has its values, but I do not think it is courage. I would not try to find allies amongst those who aspire to be blasphemous. Instead I seek to find them amongst the people who aspire to be compassionate.
If we are going to dismantle power, I do not think that we do a good job by aspiring to blasphemy and drawing holy figures with their asses up in the air. That does not strike me as effective. It strikes me as imagination-less and lazy.
I also don’t think we do a good job dismantling power by creating cartoons so exaggerated in caricature that those who don’t understand every intricacy of context will think the cartoons are racist.
There is an insistence that these cartoons are not racist. And yet many experience them that way. Shall we demand they discard their fear, their anxiety? Maybe we should demand they authenticate their pain to us before we take them seriously? Shall we call them stupid pussies as the bombs rain on them and the guns are turned on them? Perhaps they are terrorists for misunderstanding foreign caricatures that portray them with big noses and wild eyes.
Perhaps when someone I don’t know calls me a sand nigger, I should give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were critiquing the people that call me a sand nigger. I will do my best to assess the situation.
Have I ever slipped into angry critiques that might have been misconstrued, taken out of context, or had unintended effects? Yes. Do I think that should be celebrated or honored? No.
I feel a great sadness for the loss of life at Charlie Hebdo. I can only attempt — and I will fail in my attempt — to imagine the fear, the terror they felt as they were attacked. I appreciated the outpouring of grief and support that followed the shootings.
I noticed, also, how it was used by people in power to make whatever point they wanted, to demean whomever they pleased. And I noticed that the outpouring of grief turned into attacks on Muslims and Arabs afterward.
That does not mean we should not grieve.
I do not want to be associated with the rewarding of Charlie Hebdo. That does not mean in any way that I wish to be associated with the censoring of it. It does not mean I cannot appreciate satire. It does not mean I celebrate violence, either.
I understand my perspective is limited by my circumstance and who I am. It is, perhaps, because of these limits that I want to disassociate myself from the conflict. I am unable to fully understand. So I must go forward with what I know.
I know I am not interested in the trap of a “Support Our Troops” version of free speech, one that cannot be discussed. It’s one that reduces human beings and suffering — whether experienced by the staff of Charlie Hebdo by Muslims and Arabs in the context the letter describes — to an unquestionable ideology.
I know that I prefer to walk away from that version of free speech and help support, or, if need be, create a better one, one that is truly free. In the meantime, many are losing site of people, preferring the ideologies instead.
This is happening on all sides.
To achieve that one must first destroy love and compassion. This is why the attacks on dissenters become controlling and intimidating, insulting. The attacks become compulsive. They become “for us or against us.” In other words, they become battle cries. A shouting monologue that leaves no room for real people may be absolute speech, but there’s not much that is “free” about it.
Thank you to the writers who signed the letter, and also to those who voiced disagreement with the dissenters in a caring and thoughtful way. Thanks, also, to PEN, whose work cannot be summarized by this one event, work that I, as a member, will continue to support and try my best to improve.
Update: the final number of signatories when the letter was turned over to PEN on May 5 was 242.