UPDATE: Junot Díaz, Francine Prose, and Joyce Carol Oates are among a total 35 writers who have expressed the “wish to disassociate ourselves from PEN America’s decision to give the 2015 Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.”
The novelists Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi have declined to attend PEN American Center‘s annual Gala because the organization committed to free expression has decided to laurel the controversial French publication Charlie Hebdo with its 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. In response, a statement on PEN’s blog reads: “We will be sorry not to see those who have opted out of the gala, but we respect them for their convictions. We feel very privileged to live in an environment where strong and diverse views on complex issues such as these can take place both respectfully and safely.”
In January 2015, 12 people were murdered by a team of terrorists at Charlie Hebdo‘s Paris offices, some speculating the attack was invited because the paper’s staff was preparing a “Charia Hebdo” issue to mock Shariah Law. The tragic assassinations sparked a free speech vigil in which thousands brandished signs that read “Je Suis Charlie”.
But even as virtual supporters made #JeSuisCharlie and its English translation #IAmCharlie a viral rallying cry for absolute respect of free speech, dissenters cautioned that “hate speech” — what they believed Charlie Hebdo had engaged in with routine spoofs mostly aimed at Islam — did not deserve such protection.
In an op-ed entitled, “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo“, New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out that “If [the journalists at Charlie Hebdo] had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.” Brooks added, “it is inaccurate for most of us to claim, Je Suis Charlie Hebdo, or I Am Charlie Hebdo. Most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.”
On the matter, Clarence Page opined in the Chicago Tribune, “even as I defend the heroism of Charlie Hebdo, I would be remiss if I failed to condemn its racism — as well as its sexism, its anti-theism and other attacks against targets that were in much less privileged positions to defend themselves.”
For the New Yorker, Teju Cole inveighed against irresponsible insensitivity, writing, “It is not always easy to see the difference between a certain witty dissent from religion and a bullyingly racist agenda, but it is necessary to try.” Cole continued by calling out the hypocrisy in standing with Charlie Hebdo, when dissenters like John Kiriakou and Chelsea Manning suffered prison sentences for exercising their free speech rights, and Edward Snowden remains on the lam for exposing the National Security Agency’s mass surveillance program of U.S. citizens.
All of these points are well taken, and, as PEN blogged, could not be made publicly in an environment that threatens free — even offensive — speech.
The thing about expression, beliefs, and ideas is that they are always evolving (as they should be). Experiences inform them, even as exchange refines them. Lessons imparted by authority/respected figures in our lives join conversations, debates, and the media we choose to consume to strengthen our position, elevate it, or cause us to reconsider it. If we are not free to speak our minds, even when we may offend, we lose the opportunity to be confronted by our utter wrongness and to get right.
The terrorists’ strategy is to curtail the expression and celebration of anything other than what the terrorists believe, ostensibly to create a world in which everyone believes what they believe, but the reality is even when people believe in the same thing, they do not express or adhere to their belief in the same exact way. Where some struggle, others excel. The point of community, voluntary (religious, civic) and by default (work, school), is to grow through interaction, receiving and giving encouragement, strength, and support where necessary, and trusting that what is right and good and best for the group will prevail in the end. If we cut off communication — or kill the communicators — because we disagree, how can we ever hope to convert them?
As PEN American proceeds with its plans to honor Charlie Hebdo, the organization risks violent retaliation from the same extremists who firebombed the French paper’s offices in 2011 and massacred 12 staffers in January of this year. PEN International runs similar risk when they support writers at risk around the world. And we as writers risk our own safety if we dare to write about things or people that may offend others (as if choosing to enter this financially insolvent business weren’t risk enough). Perhaps this is the only commonality we need to share to be Charlie. That and $1,250 if you want to attend the gala to be held on May 5th, 6:30p at Manhattan’s American Museum of Natural History.