No Buts, But… A ‘But Head’ Writes

I immediately thought there was more than met the eye in the row over PEN American Center’s decision to give its new Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, and the resulting protest and boycott of the ceremony by a handful of its high-profile literary supporters.

In fact my first reaction was to be mildly rude about PEN Center executive director Suzanne Nossel, Hillary Clinton’s former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.

As a well-informed US friend noted, the handling of the process raised serious questions “about NGO fundraising and implicit alignments with state power and foreign policy”. I just assumed Nossel had a respectful eye on her former boss’s election chances and a return to the State Department with a glossier title.

Which is why American PEN was honouring Charlie Hebdo’s courage, not Edward Snowden’s.

Instead the focus was on the unfair conflation of PEN’s decision to honour Charlie Hebdo for its “dauntless fortitude patrolling the outer precincts of free speech” with a prize that the boycotters regarded as an inappropriate endorsement of the magazine’s content.

My US colleague, as I do, thinks it best to defend free speech independently of content (unless the content is illegal). This allows us, as she put it, “to steer clear of the unending debate as to what is offensive and what is not”. You don’t need to endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo to applaud the staff’s bravery in holding to their values in the face of life and death threats.

The counterpoint raised by the boycotters is, “but…” Content does matter if Charlie Hebdo the magazine is being honoured, rather than its murdered staff memorialised.

Now the use of the word ‘but…’ in this context is consistently disputed, even derided by free speakers. On the flip side of Charlie Hebdo’s post-massacre cover was a telling piece titled “Will There Still Be ‘Yes, But’s?” topping a furious attack on faint-hearts for inventing “clever semantic convolutions to qualify assassins and their victims as somehow equivalent?

There’s a long queue of French people keen to assert that Charlie Hebdo is absolutely not racist and why drawing the head of a black woman on a monkey’s body is in fact a triumph of anti-racist defiance (and why we are all dumb foreigners for thinking otherwise).

Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editorial director, Stéphane Charbonnier, said he aimed to make discourse presently too fraught to discuss literally ‘banal’. As reported by PEN America itself, centuries of lampooning Catholicism had made both satire and legitimate discussion of it unobjectionable, and Charbonnier felt that the same could be achieved with Islam and other topics.

I get it, ok. Charlie Hebdo is not racist in intent and their insults are meant well. I tend to think its way of expressing its anti-racist intent is more of a symptom of the peculiar national psychological condition that passes for France’s attitude to race. That said though, I am a habitual sceptic, suspicious of absolutism. I can find a ‘but…’ almost anywhere.

But… that’s another conversation entirely. This conversation is about freedom of expression. The author Hari Kunzru put it neatly in a tweet: “There is a conversation to be had about structural racism. This is the wrong starting point. #CharlieHebdo”

But… free speech happens in a context of unequal power relationships, discrimination and the marginalisation of certain groups. Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policy drew well-argued criticism for choosing to ignore this context.

The call to support Charlie Hebdo without hesitation or question “creates a false binary between legally permissible bigotry and murderous terror,” wrote US author Thomas Chatterton Williams, “a virtually impossible political bind for many of the already marginalised targets of the publication’s relentless ire.”

As the venerable free expression champion Sir Tom Stoppard said in a thoughtful piece on hate speech he wrote for one of my Index on Censorship reports – free speech rights do not always trump other rights.

But… and Sir Tom would agree – the need to defy the Assassin’s Veto actually does trump all. Charlie Hebdo’s content, context, motive, intent. All goes by the by. The murder of people for their opinions is quite simply of a different order from other kinds of censorship. It’s a no-brainer.

Now dear readers, as some of you will know, 12 years ago I suggested otherwise in a gimmicky and wilfully offensive blog obituary criticising the gimmicky and wilfully offensive Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, then recently murdered by a Islamist assassin. I was wrong to do that, and did some institutional damage to my employers as a result.

But… the killers’ use of the Assassin’s Veto still does not preclude criticism of Charlie Hebdo’s content. More than that, argued one of the boycotters, Francine Prose, the boycotters’ disagreement or repudiation of Charlie Hebdo’s editorial policies cannot be conflated with some kind of justification for the attack, indifference to the victims or loss of principle.

Salman Rushdie rejected this outright. There is no ‘but…’ he said, channelling George W. Bush as well as Charlie Hebdo. They were either on his side or with the terrorists. “In politics you can’t both be for and against. Your act says you are against. And that makes you (plural) fellow travellers of the fanatics.

It’s evidence of a widening divide between absolutist and pragmatist free speech defenders. These include many literate, thoughtful committed defenders of human rights of all genders, orientations, races and creeds on both sides.

PEN defends an absolute right to offend, when others recognise only a qualified freedom to do so, dependent on tolerance and open-mindedness to contest offence; not power, real or cultural, to dismiss it. It’s essential in the exchange of challenging ideas that disturb stability and peace, but which are the key to life.

Charlie Hebdo thanked those “who are truly on our side, who sincerely and deeply ‘are Charlie.’” And to those who aren’t: “We say fuck you to the others, who don’t give a shit anyway.” Similarly furious disregard of PEN critics’ considered opinions – Rushdie initially described the boycotters as ‘pussies’ before withdrawing the insult – polarises absolutists and liberals in a way that is damaging to both sides.

So here I am qualifying my first unkind thoughts on Nossel, who wrote on the day of the award, together with PEN America’s president Andrew Solomon, of the need to prevent this kind of useless polarisation.

“Our goal has been to avoid a reductive binary,” they said. “This is a nuanced question, and all of (their critics) have made persuasive moral arguments.”

Freedom of expression is a right worth fighting for, but not at the expense of giving a fair hearing and a considered response to conflicting views of the purposes to which it is put to use. Just because the decision to defend free expression rights is a no-brainer, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need brains.

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