The Power of Words and the Need to Protect Free Speech
PEN America, the venerable organization formed in New York in 1922 as a sister group to PEN International to champion both literary fellowship and freedom of expression, marked its centennial with a symposium at the New-York Historical Society. The event turned out to have a stark and somber symbolism no one had anticipated: The original list of speakers included Salman Rushdie, the controversial author of The Satanic Verses. “There’s no one whose life experience and ethos is more closely entwined with our organization,” PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel told the audience at the event’s opening. “When the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa targeting Salman, his murderous decree offered a twisted testament to the influence of writers and the lengths to which governments will go to silence them.” But the plan for an onstage conversation with Rushdie about the Satanic Verses saga was, as Nossel put it, “sliced to shreds by a man with a knife” who tried to carry out Khomeini’s fatwa on August 12 at another literary event, that one in upstate New York.
Still, no one could have been more present in spirit: Rushdie was the subject of warm tributes from several speakers. Nigerian feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke of the horrifying resonance of the attack, invoking “the brutal and barbaric intimacy of a person standing inches from you and forcefully plunging a knife into your flesh—and this, because you wrote.”
I decided to reread Salman’s books, and reading became not only an act of defiant support but an act of meaning: It was important for me to remind myself how much words matter, how much books matter. In Salman’s memoir Joseph Anton, he writes about an Egyptian sheikh who said that if the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz had been properly punished for writing his novel then Salman Rushdie would not have dared write his. And shortly afterwards one of the sheikh’s followers stabbed Naguib Mahfouz in the neck. Salman then writes, “The elderly novelist survived, fortunately.” And that line—“The elderly novelist survived, fortunately”—felt particularly poignant and moving to me.
Salman survived but what happened to him should never have happened. And while we insist that violence can never, ever be an acceptable response to speech, we must also not deny the power of words to wound. Words can wound our spirits. Some of the greatest hurts of my life have come from words that somebody said or wrote. And some of the most beautiful gifts I have received have also been words. Yes, words have power and it is in fact because of their power that we must protect them.
Obviously, most writers working in liberal democracies in 2022 are not in danger of being sentenced to death in absentia for their writings, or of being confronted by a fanatical and armed would-be enforcer of that sentence. (A Twitter death threat is not quite the same thing.) And yet the theme of free expression in jeopardy, not just in dictatorships but here in the United States, dominated the discussion. In her introductory remarks, Nossel noted that PEN America was committed to resisting encroachments on speech from both right and left, be they attempts to remove unwelcome books (particularly ones with LGBT themes) from school libraries or pressure to restrict free speech on college campuses. This political evenhandedness was evident through the evening. The so-called library wars, which sometimes include actual and disturbing harassment from the right as well as illiberal legislative action, were repeatedly and duly noted; Ayad Akhtar even asserted that we are “in the midst of the most significant repression of free speech by American legislatures” in his lifetime. And yet all in all, perhaps more attention was paid—at an unquestionably left-of-center gathering before a liberal New York audience—to the dangers of zealotry on the social justice- and identity-focused left.
Akhtar, an American playwright of Pakistani background and currently the PEN president, was particularly scathing in his denunciation of such trends as the drive to police and stigmatize writers’ “appropriation” of characters and cultures not their own (at least when those characters and cultures rank lower in the hierarchy of oppression and privilege):
Do we really believe that the harm of appropriation is greater than the benefit of artistic empathy? Isn’t the artist’s magical self-insertion into the lives of others the very act of moral and aesthetic enlargement that defines what is most singular and necessary about literature and which is only possible through freedom this singular freedom of the artist to imagine widely, to imagine completely without fetters? . . .
It’s easy for us to repudiate the assault on freedom represented by the fatwa on Salman. . . . It can be harder to discern the assault on our freedom when the threat is sanctioned by pieties with which we sympathize, but that doesn’t make these nearer threats any less real. Indeed, any defense of the freedom to speak must contend with the fact that we will say things that harm those much closer to us than the ayatollah. As Salman himself once said, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
Later, Akhtar took aim at the practice of “sensitivity readers” who vet manuscripts at many publishing houses to ensure that they do not offend members of various communities, flatly declaring, “If there had been sensitivity readers early in my career, I wouldn’t have a career.” He also uttered what may have been the evening’s most memorable phrase: “I joke [that] I feel like we are potentially entering into an era of socialist realism without the genocide.”
Adichie echoed some of the same concerns, even noting that The Satanic Verses might not have been published—or, for that matter, written—today, when the pressure to avoid offense to groups perceived as marginalized is so strong. She also had some tart words for “a particularly American ideal, the addiction to comfort,” which she said she first noticed when she came here to attend college in the late 1990s. (Adichie, 45, received her bachelor’s degree from Eastern Connecticut State University and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins and Yale.) An emphasis on comfort is fine, Adichie said, when it comes to shoes, household conveniences, or minimizing pain during medical procedures—but often harmful and destructive when it comes to “truth-telling” and the discussion of difficult issues. While she noted that in many cases it is the comfort of the powerful that is being protected, her remarks also made it clear that at least at present, power may not always rest in traditional places. She echoed concerns about “hysterical efforts to ban books” from school libraries; but she also said that she was particularly concerned with self-censorship resulting from new American orthodoxies: “Books increasingly are read not as art but as politics; characters are absurdly expected to be ideologically pure. . . . It feels to me as though we are now expected to speak of the ugly sides of human nature as though we are ourselves inherently incapable of any ugliness.” Without using the contested term “cancel culture,” she spoke of the phenomenon:
We must protect the values of disagreement and agree that there is value in disagreement. It troubles me nowadays how quickly people are fired for something they have said—not because I like or support what they say, I often don’t, but because it is a silencing that leads to a larger kind of silencing. The act of firing a person without engaging with what was said—sometimes without even saying exactly what was said—almost suggests that what was said has a certain power, if not truth, which then leads to reasoning such as this: “They would not need to censor us if we were wrong.”
There was universal agreement among the panelists that untrammeled speech, debate, and intellectual exploration are essential to the advancement of progressive causes. Yet the discussion also touched on the nuances and complexities of freedom, culture, and identity: Adichie herself noted that, while writers should be able to write about anything, African writers could generally tell stories of Africa and Africans better than European or American authors. Another panelist, Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is transgender and stressed the importance of trans people’s stories being truthfully told, shared an amusing “write what you know” anecdote about a lion gifted to an eighteenth-century Swedish king and eventually preserved as a laughably bad stuffed and mounted display—made by a taxidermist who had never seen a live lion.
Not surprisingly, everyone agreed that a writer who sets out to depict a culture to which he or she is an outsider should strive to do it well—or, as Adichie put it, “they better do the bloody work.” And yet even that precept turns out to be debatable. “Who decides?” asked Nossel, recalling the brouhaha over Jeanine Cummins’s 2020 novel American Dirt—which was written with the intent of telling a sympathetic story about Mexican migrants but got Cummins, a white woman with a Puerto Rican grandmother, accused of appropriation and stereotyping. Nossel pointed out that “people were divided about whether it had been done well or not. . . . Some Mexican American or Mexican writers endorsed the book wholeheartedly and others excoriated it.” Another panelist, the novelist Margaret Atwood, told the cautionary tale of Charles Dickens, long before the current social justice moment, setting out to atone for the antisemitic portrayal of the villainous Fagin in Oliver Twist by creating a noble but dull and bland Jewish character, Riah, in Our Mutual Friend. (Atwood mistakenly referred to him as “Rubin,” inadvertently underscoring her point about how unmemorable the character turned out to be.)
The culture wars are vast and multilayered, and even a three-hour event is going to leave some important aspects of it un- or underdiscussed. During the Q&A, I asked (via notecard) about the library wars: While they unquestionably involve some genuinely authoritarian behavior on the right, is “book ban” too broad and simple a label for actions that may involve simply removing a book from a “recommended reading” list, dropping it from a school curriculum, or limiting access to age-inappropriate material? Nossel answered my question and acknowledged that age-appropriateness could be a legitimate concern, but the conversation that followed did little to clarify distinctions between different kinds of restrictions. (A particularly troubling effort in Virginia sought to find two LGBT-themed books in violation of state obscenity laws and to block bookstores from selling them to minors; but that suit was tossed by a judge at the end of August.)
Likewise, the discussion of “cancel culture” and self-censorship left many unexplored questions: Where does one draw the line, for example, between criticism and harassment or even “cancellation”? I was glad Nossel brought up the American Dirt debacle, but I wish she had mentioned the fact that the book was attacked as not merely inaccurate but “harmful” and “dangerous,” and that Cummins’s book tour was canceled because of threats to booksellers and the author. Cummins’s mass-market novels may not compare to Rushdie’s work in literary value, but this was still a troubling situation in which the lines of appropriate pushback were surely crossed.
What’s more, the panel itself avoided some uncomfortable but relevant topics—such as the fact that in 2020, Boylan signed the notorious Harper’s Magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which criticized intellectual intolerance on the left, but later apologized for signing it because of the identities of some unnamed “others” who had also signed it—presumably J.K. Rowling, whose opinions transgender activists have characterized as bigoted. Atwood, the Canadian literary icon, spoke about attempts to censor her dystopian feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale but did not mention her attempted cancellation in 2018 when she sided with a male professor accused of sexual misconduct and questioned the “accusation equals guilt” mindset in the #MeToo movement.
Atwood is, at 82, a brilliant speaker of undiminished vivacity and acerbic wit. Her session, a conversation with the novelist Dave Eggers, digressed at one point into a tangent about abortion rights and The Handmaid’s Tale that came across as more of a crowd-pleaser on an intensely emotional subject than an exploration of issues in PEN America’s orbit. But Atwood more than made up for it by highlighting the link between modern-day debates about free speech and Communist totalitarianism before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Her recollections of her travels behind the Iron Curtain in the 1980s were fascinating and told with her trademark dry humor. Atwood also gets kudos for being the one speaker to mention the war in Ukraine and to point out that, other human rights issues aside, Russian efforts to erase Ukrainian language and culture in occupied areas are a quintessential free expression issue: “If that isn’t the silencing of free speech, I don’t know what it is.”
All in all, the PEN America evening was probably the best event I have seen so far on the culture wars around free speech. If there’s a takeaway from it, it’s that to speak of authoritarian tendencies and threats to speech and expression on both the left and the right is not “bothsidesism,” conservative deflection, or the anxiety of white and male privilege assailed by diverse voices. It’s simply a response to a concerning reality.