May 7, 2015
Charlie Hebdo editors receive standing ovation, freedom of expression award at PEN Gala
by Alex Shephard
On Tuesday, Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gerard Biard accepted the PEN American Center’s Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in a ceremony held at New York’s Natural History Museum. Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly, was being honored by PEN after eight of its staff, along with four others, were killed in a terrorist attack in January; Biard received a standing ovation as he accepted the award.
PEN America’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo was intensely controversial—it’s probably been the biggest story in the literary world since HarperCollins announced it would be publishing Harper Lee‘s Go Set A Watchman in late January. In late April, six of the PEN America Gala’s literary hosts—novelists Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose,Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Taiye Selasi—withdrew from the ceremony in protest of the decision. Here’s a portion of Eisenberg’s explanation for her decision to not attend the Gala:
On many or most points I’m in complete agreement with you. I agree unreservedly that an expression of views, whether satirical or not, and however disagreeable, is not to be answered by murder. I agree unreservedly that the free expression of views should not be banned. And I agree unreservedly that threats of violence let alone actual violence against people who express their views must be vigorously and vociferously opposed …
… But here is a point on which we differ. Or at least as I understand it, this is something that you and PEN are asserting: that people who are murdered for expressing themselves are automatically deserving of praise.
… What actually matters most in this instance, in my opinion, is what people believe is being awarded: What does PEN wish to convey by presenting this prestigious award to Charlie Hebdo? . . . Charlie Hebdo is undeniably courageous in that it has continued irrepressibly to ridicule Islam and its adherents, who include a conspicuously and ruthlessly dangerous faction. But ridicule of Islam and Muslims cannot in itself be considered courageous at this moment, because ridicule of Islam and Muslims is now increasingly considered acceptable in the West. However its staff and friends see it, Charlie Hebdo could well be providing many, many people with an opportunity to comfortably assume a position that they were formerly ashamed to admit. This is not a voice of dissent, this is the voice of a mob.
In a letter to the board, PEN America’s president, Andrew Solomon, and its executive director Suzanne Nossel, articulated their position, writing “there is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.”
The debate did not end there. This initial volley produced an array of responses from people inside and outside of PEN. Soon after, a letter was sent to PEN America members, urging them to join the growing protest:
In March it was announced that the PEN Literary Gala, to be held May 5th 2015, would honor the magazine Charlie Hebdowith the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in response to the January 7 attacks that claimed the lives of many members of its editorial staff.
It is clear and inarguable that the murder of a dozen people in the Charlie Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic. What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly were used to make that decision.
We do not believe in censoring expression. An expression of views, however disagreeable, is certainly not to be answered by violence or murder.
However, there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting. expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.
In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were characterized as satire and “equal opportunity offense,” and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of principled disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offence does not have an equal effect.
Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.
To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.
In our view, PEN America could have chosen to confer its PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award upon any of a number of journalists and whistleblowers who have risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom (and even their lives) in service of the greater good.
PEN is an essential organization in the global battle for freedom of expression. It is therefore particularly disheartening to see that PEN
America has chosen to honor the work and mission of Charlie Hebdo above those who not only exemplify the principles of free expression, but whose courage, even when provocative or discomfiting, has also been fastidiously exercised for the good of humanity.
We the undersigned, as writers, thinkers, and members of PEN, therefore respectfully 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.
Over 200 writers signed the letter. As the Gala drew nearer, more and more pieces about the writers’ decision to protest the event were published—some defended the action as the kind of free expression that PEN promoted, while others accused the writers of fighting the wrong enemy. (I’ve followed the debate fairly closely, but have remained largely ambivalent—though I always like internal debates in the left, especially ones between what I guess you could call internationalist and multiculturalist factions. If you’re interested in reading two of the better pieces, you should read Chris Beha in Harpers and Keith Gessen in n+1.)
The Gala itself appears to have gone rather smoothly, which, I suppose, is to be expected, given the fact that most of the dissenters didn’t attend. According to Alan Yuhas‘s excellent report in the Guardian, the protests appeared to have overshadowed the event itself—it seems that most of the speakers addressed them in one way or another.
Accepting the award, Charlie Hebdo’s editor-in-chief Gerard Biard said that the magazine’s shocking and sometimes offensive content helped combat extremists who would limit free speech. “Fear is the most powerful weapon they have,” he said. “Being here tonight we contribute to disarming them.”
Secularism was not the enemy of religion; it simply said that the state had no religion, Biard continued. “Being shocked is part of the democratic debate. Being shot is not,” he said…
PEN president Andrew Solomon, who had earlier told the Guardian that “it’s a courage award, not a content award”, delivered a full-throated defense of the prize on Tuesday night.
“Few people are willing to put themselves in peril to ensure that we are all free what we believe,” Solomon said. “Tonights’s award reflects [Charlie Hebdo’s] refusal to accept the curtailment of speech through violence.
“We defend free speech above its content,” Solomon said. “Muteness is more toxic than speech. Silence equals death.”
Biard and Congolese author Alain Mabanckou told the audience that Charlie Hebdo was and always had been “anti-racist”, a reply to the criticism that the magazine portrayed French racial and religious minorities in a stereotypical way. “Charlie Hebdo has fought all forms of racism since its inception,” Biard said.
Mabanckou also argued that the magazine was simply received in France differently than in the US, and that misunderstandings had resulted from “cross-cultural exchanges: we all belong to one family and we’re all committed to freedom of expression”.
Playwright Tom Stoppard, given a separate award for his acclaimed works in theater and film – also made a conciliatory appeal. The organisation admirably “draws attention toward a tension of persecution”, he said. “If we end up beating each other up then neither of [us] will exist.”
Yuhas’s piece initially concluded with this anecdote from the night’s events: “But for all the energy surrounding the French magazine—including standing ovations and frequent interruptions of applause—few mustered the same enthusiasm for a third honoree, Khadija Ismayilova, an investigative journalist in Azerbaijan for her reporting on government corruption. As Ismayilova’s friend tried to stir the crowd with stories of her courage and spur them into action to save her from a life in prison, the audience readied itself for champagne, dessert, and mroe talk of Charlie Hebdo.”
That paragraph was later removed and somewhat sanitized, but its message remains clear and vital. Regardless of what you think of the validity of the controversy surrounding PEN America’s decision to honor Charlie Hebdo, that decision has undoubtedly clouded the organization’s core mission.
Alex Shephard is the director of digital media for Melville House, and a former bookseller.