Update: James LeyWeek in Review

PEN and Freedom of Speech

Binge eating the earth2

Peter Baka, Binge eating the earth, photo collage, 130 cm x 60 cm, courtesy the artist and Robin Gibson Gallery.

It has been a grim week, a violent week, one of those weeks in which the reports of disasters and conflagrations and horrors from around the world – the unfolding catastrophe in Nepal, the explosion of racial tensions in Baltimore, the executions in Indonesia, the murder of a political activist in Karachi – might conspire to make the spectacle of a group of writers arguing with each other seem rather trivial. But the controversy that erupted after six prominent authors – Rachel Kushner, Teju Cole, Peter Carey, Taiye Selasi, Francine Prose, Michael Ondaatje – withdrew from a PEN America event that was to honour the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo appears to have opened up an important debate that was suppressed, or perhaps suspended, in the immediate aftermath of the shocking attack on the magazine’s offices in January, in which twelve people were killed.

My view is that the writers who have withdrawn from the PEN event have made the wrong call – though I have some sympathy for their attempt to acknowledge the cultural complexities and the underlying sensitivities of the issues – just as I think it is clear in hindsight that the writers who squirmed and hedged in 1989 when the fatwa was pronounced on Salman Rushdie, those who suggested in one way or another that maybe he shouldn’t have been quite so provocative or offensive, also made the wrong call. In his statement (which you can read here, alongside an exchange between another dissenting author, Deborah Eisenberg, and the Executive Director of the PEN American Center, Suzanne Nossel), Teju Cole described himself as a ‘free speech fundamentalist’, but proposed that this case is very different to the Rushdie affair. I would argue that the principle at stake is exactly the same.

The argument, where it has not degenerated into name-calling, has come to focus not so much on the principle of free speech (which everyone bar the murderous religious fanatics themselves makes a show of agreeing with), as on the content of the magazine. Its rationale and editorial line have been defended and the imputation of racism vigorously rejected by several commentators. For the dissenting authors, however, its content is not only unworthy and distasteful – Eisenberg calls it ‘spectacularly offensive’ – but politically unsound, in that its mocking anti-religious stance leads it to denigrate the beliefs of people who are socially marginalised and disempowered. (For those who do not speak French, this site provides translations for some of the most controversial cartoons and explains their political contexts, so you can decide for yourself exactly how offended you would like to be.)

The argument of the dissenting authors is that one can deplore the crime and yet condemn the publication. This is fair enough. But the argument also applies the other way: one can honour the courage of the publication and the principle it represents without endorsing its content. As Nossel explains in her correspondence with Eisenberg, this is the view of PEN:

We don’t see this award as legitimizing or applauding everything Charlie Hebdo has written or depicted; the very premise of their own magazine is that nothing enjoys sanctity and everything is a fair object of critique.

Indeed. To turn the issue into an argument about the appropriateness or acceptability or worthiness of the magazine’s content, as the dissenting authors have done, is not so much to miss the point, or even to be diverted into inopportune navel-gazing about the complicated issue of the limits and responsibilities of free speech (an argument that can be had only when there are publications that have the courage to test the limits of the acceptable); it is problematic because, in affecting to express concern for those who may have been affronted by the magazine, it raises the question of what we are to make of the explicitly stated motivation of the killers themselves. Charlie Hebdo did not turn itself into an international symbol of free speech – the murderers did that, and they did so in the name of their religion. Perhaps, in an odd way, the remark that gets closest to the heart of the issue is Prose’s claim that she objects to Charlie Hebdo imposing ‘a kind of forced secular view’, for the attack on Charlie Hebdo was very much an attack on secularism – that is, it was an attack on exactly the kind of pluralistic liberal views that Prose wants to affirm, an attack in a very real sense on her own world view. Prose would appear to be using the term ‘secular’ here in a loose sense to refer to the anti-religious orientation of Charlie Hebdo, but it is worth remembering that the term refers, quite specifically, to the separation of church and state, which underpins the basic principle of individual freedom of conscience. This is something that writers, of all people, have a duty to defend, and it is the principle Charlie Hebdo has now come to represent, whether you like what it does or not. As Adam Gopnik stated in a passionately argued article for the New Yorker:

Liberal civilizations, open societies, try to stretch as broadly as they can, to be as tolerant as life allows. But they have limits. The real social contract at the heart of liberal civilization is simple: in exchange for the freedom to be as insulting as you want about other people’s ideas, you have to give up the possibility of assaulting other people’s persons. By all means, mock and belittle, sneer and be sour. We all expect no less. But you cannot knife or shoot someone, or even threaten to do these things. If you do, you stand outside the contract, and you are no longer a citizen of our city. And those who you do knife or shoot are our martyrs to the open society, and they are to be honored as such: they are carrying the flag of freedom, whose device isn’t noble, nor ever needs to be, but is more often a ridiculous caricature of an overrated ideologue, a mocking picture of a prophet.

It is in this context that I am pleased that Sydney Review of Books this week features, as the first of a series of articles on Asian literature, a timely and important essay by Aruna Sinha that might serve as a reminder that freedom of expression is not something that can be taken for granted. In ‘Perumal Murugan and the Politics of Literary Oppression’, Sinha examines the recent case of the Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, who announced earlier this year that he would no longer write and that he was withdrawing his books from sale, following a campaign of intimidation by Hindu fundamentalists. As Sinha outlines, Indian authorities have proved reluctant to confront a rising title of religious fundamentalism:

In 2012, for instance, Salman Rushdie was prevented from making an appearance at the Jaipur Literature Festival after Muslim fundamentalist groups threatened to storm the festival. Since then, intolerance for anything perceived as affronting Hinduism has grown sharply, especially on social media. Nor has the voice of Muslim protest changed – as recently as this month (April 2015), protestors forced the Facebook profiles of the Bengali poet Srijato and the Bangladeshi writer Tasleema Nasrin (who lives in India) to be shut down for alleged insults to Islam.

Our second essay this week looks at the life of one of Australia’s most famous artists, William Dobell. In ‘The Man Who Knew too Much’, Martin Edmond reviews a substantial new biography of the painter by Scott Bevan. Dobell was an enigmatic man, and Bevan’s biography draws on reminiscences from the residents of Wangi Wangi, where Dobell lived for much of his later life, to round out what Edmond argues is a valuable if flawed portrait of the artist. As Edmond observes, Dobell

seems like a character from a T. S. Eliot or perhaps a Kenneth Slessor poem: a kind of phantom, hardly there at all, made up of reflexive gestures, fugitive traces, half-remembered words. People who knew him from those times included Donald Friend, Patrick White, Arthur Murch, Russell Drysdale and Joshua Smith. None seemed able to sum him up or to say anything particularly cogent about him.

From the Archives this week revisits Guy Rundle’s robust review of Richard King’s On Offence. King’s book argues – and events of this week would appear to bear him out – that a great deal of contemporary politics has come to be dominated by competing claims of ‘offence’; Rundle, being Rundle, has plenty to say on the subject.

Read the Pen and Freedom of Speech Correspondence