October 25, 2016
Words from a Stone: Columbia University radio show tells writer she can read her story on-air only if it’s censored
by Ian Dreiblatt
Last week, I had a long talk with Laurie Stone about censorship. It wasn’t the interview she had been planning for.
The conversation Stone had expected would have taken place on October 9, with Studio A, a Sunday night talk show broadcast by WKCR, Columbia University’s student-run radio station. She’d been scheduled to discuss her fourth and newest book, a collection of short stories called My Life as an Animal, published earlier this month by Northwestern. She was excited about the appearance, posting enthusiastically on Facebook, and had selected two passages from her work to read on the air.
But three hours before she was scheduled to appear, Stone got an email from the show’s producers that upended her expectations dramatically.
The letter affirmed the station’s commitment to freedom of speech. It also took issue with a particular sentence from one of the fictions Stone had intended to read on the air — a line from a story called When People Fall, I Laugh (After Édouard Levé) that producers described as conflicting with the values of both WKCR and Columbia University more broadly. And it offered Stone a choice: she could appear on the show as scheduled and read a censored version of the story, or she could cancel her appearance, with the idea of finding another night — and another excerpt from her work.
Stone, who had just finished a several-hour drive downstate to Manhattan when she received the email, wrote back immediately. She told the producers she was “appalled” at the request to censor her work, canceled the appearance, and headed directly home. There, she got to work.
Stone began reaching out to share her story, contacting friends and writing letters to PEN America, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), and Barnard President Debora Spar, among others. (A longtime Village Voice writer who has also contributed to the Nation and NPR’s Fresh Air, she is presumably the owner of a well-forested rolodex.) The response was fast, with a number of prominent writers and artists including Susan Daitch, Paul La Farge, Judy Nylon, and Holly Hughes expressing support for Stone’s writing and cause. The NCAC’s Svetlana Mintcheva wrote to describe the incident as “strangely over-the-top — but telling.”
Last week, we wrote about a recent report from PEN America that warns, “A rising generation may be turning against free speech.” It is striking that young journalists would respond to discomfort over the sentiments of a fictional character not by challenging the author who created them on-air but by presenting the choice of having her work censored, seeing her invitation rescinded, or accepting a last-minute postponement accompanied by added strictures on which of her writing would be deemed suitable for sharing. Earlier, Stone had found it odd when producers requested a sample of what she planned to read on the show. “I thought they wanted to familiarize themselves with my writing,” she says. “It did not cross my mind they were vetting content, and they did not state that purpose. If they had, I would have refused to hand over my texts.”
Among the ghosts haunting the exchange is that of Édouard Levé, the avant-garde French photographer and author to whom Stone’s story announces itself as a homage. The work of Levé’s that Stone’s story most clearly resembles is Autoportrait, a short book in which a series of declarative, first-person sentences accrete in a kind of frenzied, autobiographical pointillism. One passage, for instance, in the translation of Lorin Stein, reads:
I see no point in holding on to my old toothbrushes. My favorite months are September and April, September for the resumption of social activity, April for the arrival of spring and the progressive denudification of women. I am not an expert in anything. I have subjects of conversation besides myself. I form very few hard and fast judgments about politics, the economy, and international affairs. I do not like bananas.
The “I” who speaks in Autoportrait seems to be Levé himself — or, at least, the biographical facts the book’s speaker offers up about himself are generally consonant with those of Levé’s life. But the book is not really about him. Rather, as the sentences rush on and branch out, they begin to open up a conceptual space between biographical reality and the effects of language, between the “I” who speaks and the “I” who is an other. This troubled, troubling space, unstable and impossible to stabilize, is closer to being the book’s subject.
The letter Stone received from WKCR does not specify which of the station’s and university’s values it aims to defend, but it does identify the offending sentence from When People Fall, I Laugh (After Édouard Levé). A passage near the end of the story reads:
When my mother was in her 90s and close to death, she leaned against the door of her bedroom and said, “I wouldn’t have had children if anyone had asked me, which they didn’t.” The remark makes me miss her much in the way I missed her when she was alive. I think women who live in secular countries and conform to religious dress codes make the lives of all women less free and less safe.
It’s this last sentence that troubled the show’s producers.
Feminist writers devote a lot of energy weighing women’s agency to choose their manner of dress, traditional or otherwise, against proscriptions that identify particular sartorial regulations with patriarchy and social control. Under the pall of an election where one candidate is running on a platform of open Islamophobia, tensions around traditional modes of dress among Muslims in particular have become widespread. Women’s observance of Muslim clothing standards is presented in feminist terms increasingly often (although by no means always). Last summer in the wake of the Nice attack, the story of a woman on a French beach forced by police to remove some of her clothing went viral.
For context, I reached out to Julia Chang, a Cornell professor and researcher in gender and sexuality studies. “I have to say I’m ambivalent about this debate,” she said. “On the one hand, my impulse is to say women should be able to wear whatever they want. At the same time, I take issue with a neoliberal fetish for the freedom to choose that has infected feminism in a counterproductive way. This might be an example of what bell hooks calls ‘lifestyle feminism’ — the idea that any woman, regardless of her political leanings, can incorporate feminism into her existing lifestyle without necessarily challenging patriarchal culture. It’s essentially a feminism that has been emptied of politics.” (For a dynamic reading of the origins of religious rules of dress for women, I recommend David Graeber’s excellent Debt. For nuanced discussion around issues of attire and the law, you can’t do better than the writing of poet and legal scholar Ruthann Robson.)
In a letter of support, Deborah Maine, a Columbia Professor Emerita of Population and Family Health, noted that cultural perceptions of women’s bodies, and rights, are anything but trivial. “Women die every day because of the way their culture views them. This takes many forms, including intimate partner violence, unwanted pregnancies leading to unsafe abortions, and limitations on women’s ability to seek medical care due their cultures’ restrictions on their mobility, access to money, and ability to give consent. Consequently, there are important discussions that should be taking place about the relationship between fundamentalism and women’s rights and health.”
I asked Stone about the line from her story. Her answer is worth quoting at length:
The story is a fiction, and generally I do not explain my writing. The kind of creative writing I practice does not advance an argument or contain a secret agenda of meaning. In this case, however, I welcome the chance to speak about the sentence.
The speaker skips over a number of steps in expressing the sentiment. First and foremost she is saying a big fat NO to all metaphysics, and yes, that includes all religions. She sees religion as ideology that props up patriarchy and male supremacy. This idea has not recently popped into the cultural conversation. I think we can fairly site Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, and a fuckload of feminist thinkers, among them Mary Wollstonecraft, Kate Millett, Shulamith Firestone, and others. Not only is the speaker dissenting from all religions, she is deconstructing essentialist thinking. Essentialist thinking believes there is such a thing, in reality, as maleness and femaleness, and that these things are ordained by gods and concepts of “the natural.” The speaker believes the concept of “the natural” is a human invention that undergoes change all the time. She does not believe anything in the material world possesses an essential nature, and she believes only in the existence of things that are material (again, not metaphysical). If we had a lot more time and space, we could speak about the ineluctability of metaphysics in language and in the nature of humans to attach narrative and teleological meaning to things that exist in a linear pattern.
Let’s put that kind of metaphysics aside and go back to maleness and femaleness. The speaker of the sentence sees the concept of “maleness” as defined in all religions and in the societies shaped by religions as “not female.” In religions and other ideologies of enforced, gendered power, the function of perceived femaleness is to comment on maleness. In these thought structures femaleness is a contaminating agent that must be kept separate from maleness, lest it pollute and degrade maleness. How do you keep it separate? You confine and control the female body, especially the sexual female body, in public and private space. You determine whether it can freely engage in sexual behavior. You maim and kill it if it expresses desires that threaten the sovereignty of males to control it. You attach notions of honor and purity to it that constrict and sometimes destroy it. You determine it must be draped and shorn to limit its sexual power over males.
Here is the kicker. The practitioners of the most orthodox and rigid religions unconsciously suspect maleness is already contaminated. They know in some part of their half-conscious minds that if there were really such a thing as an essential male nature and an essential female nature, none of this policing would be necessary. The fear of contamination becomes a symptom that the contamination has already occurred and that people are hopelessly mixed. Which brings us back to control of the female body through clothing and bodily styles. All of it, nun’s habits, the orthodox Jewish woman’s shaved head topped by an evidently fake wig, the Muslim burka reenforce essentialist and freedom-constricting depictions of the female body and the life lived in that body. They say the free sexuality of that body needs to be controlled and socially organized.
If you are female and watch the normalization of the controlled and organized female body, you feel alarmed. If you exist in a female body and know there are cultural practices in societies—now becoming banned—that cut out the clitoris, you feel it in your own clitoris. What happens to women anywhere under structures of sexism and misogyny happens in some measure to all women everywhere.
Now to the question of the place of law. Governments are outlawing female genital mutilation, although when I was freshly in the women’s movement I heard feminists argue that western women had no place in the discussion of women’s lives in other cultures and societies. Global feminism grew, anyway, and is responsible for changing cultural and social understandings of practices against women—such as honor killings—and naming them as human rights abuses. What about banning religious clothing such as the headscarf in French public schools? I don’t think it works. It comes off as discrimination against one religion and one set of practices. It comes off as arrogant, as if western societies have got the coersive control and misogyny thing wrapped up. Yeah, right.
And what about women who choose to conform to dress codes when their lives and safety are not threatened? That brings us back to the statement in the story. The speaker of the sentence believes women in all societies are trained to put their own interests second. The needs and resistance of any other group compel women more strongly than the needs of women to resist and redefine the way they are understood and treated. That is the injury sexism and misogyny inscribe on the female psyche. It is hard for female humans to say the interests of females should come first and if they do not come first in this political moment nothing in the world will improve. The speaker of the sentence believes that. The speaker believes one final thing relevant to the sentence. She is saying while the categories “female,” “woman,” and “girl” may not describe real things, the hatreds attached to these categories are real. She is not interested in defining identity. She is interested in exposing freedom-endangering cultural practices and phobias. She knows there are times when loyalties inside a single person may be torn and divided and that not all contradictions can be resolved. She still thinks you have to pick a side or it picks you. She picks the cause of bodily freedom for women. I find it scary that opposing the gender binary and gendered roles is now conflated on the CU campus—perhaps owing to a misplaced sense of protectionism—with a morally reprehensible position.
By October 14, Stone had received sympathetic messages from a number of people, including representatives of PEN America, the NCAC, former and current Columbia faculty, Barnard’s president, and assorted writers and friends. “I felt supported,” she says. By that time, the station had also issued a public apology:
WKCR regrets its actions with regard to a guest who had recently been scheduled to appear on our program Studio A. Specifically, WKCR’s editorial policies and University policies regarding speech were misrepresented in our communications to this guest. To be clear, WKCR and Columbia University strongly believe in robust freedom of expression, especially about challenging ideas. Likewise, WKCR’s content is curated by student and alumni programmers and reflects their own individual self-expression. As undergraduate students serving in a volunteer capacity, we are grateful for the opportunities to grow through our management of WKCR. This is a continuous educational process; to that end we are engaged in ongoing meetings with Student Life staff to ensure students understand the core freedom of speech values essential to a university community. While we regret how this issue had been handled by individual students, WKCR recognizes this occurrence as an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to free expression of our guests and programmers.
Several sources have confirmed that WKCR’s Board of Directors and producers—all undergraduates at Barnard and Columbia—are solely responsible for programming choices, and that the decision to apologize was these students’ alone. The students did not reply to my requests for comment, but I was able to reach Philip Masciantonio, the station’s Director of Broadcasting and Operations. (Masciantonio is not a student; his is a staff position with the University’s Office of Undergraduate Student Life.) He commented:
I emphasize that the individuals involved in this issue are student volunteers engaged in an educational activity. We recognize that this event has sparked a debate beyond our community. For our part, we remain committed to continuing a meaningful conversation among WKCR’s management and members about the station’s values and its commitment to freedom of expression. We have no doubt that this conversation will provide an opportunity for reflection and growth.
After publishing the apology, station personnel reached out to Stone to ensure she had seen it. Stone was gratified and said so, adding a request that the station identify her by name as its recipient. The station declined, which rankles the author. “I think when you speak in a damaging and insulting way to a particular person, you need to apologize to that person and name the offense,” she told me. “The vague language feels like another form of silencing and shooing off a pesky complainer. I serve as a learning experience for the students. Which students? What did they learn?”
It is, of course, possible to take the view that by agreeing to appear on a student-run university radio station, Stone implicitly accepted a forum whose primary orientation was toward neither commercial nor public interests, but rather the edification of student producers. From that perspective, there may be a case to be made in favor of the station’s actions less because the ears of New York’s radio listeners need protecting from the ideas expressed in Stone’s fiction than on the grounds that the undergraduates involved are learning not merely the technical skills of operating a radio station, but also the social and political skills of building and protecting a community. If they have done this imperfectly, they have also apologized.
Invoking the PEN America report, I asked Stone for her thoughts on the balance between freedom of speech and freedom from harm. She replied:
I do not teach at a university and have never been that involved in academic environments. I have been listening to friends who teach complain about the concept of “micro aggressions,” etc., but this is my first run-in. I don’t believe you can create safety through repression and social control. I hate the notion that consenting adults in any context can lose their jobs by having sex. I believe in sexual freedom. Students and professors should be able to have sex. Let’s help women say no if they mean no, and let’s instruct male humans to leave people alone who do not want them. I believe in freedom of speech, and I believe you defang with eloquent argument speech you think is wrong.
It is not clear whether WKCR intends to follow up further on these events; the station’s expression that it “recognizes this occurrence as an opportunity to demonstrate our commitment to free expression of our guests and programmers” might be taken as an indication of its intention to invite Stone back on the air sans content restrictions (she says that, under those circumstances, she’ll go if asked), or a reiteration of the programmers’ original decision that Stone’s work does not belong on the station. In the meantime, Stone—who made clear to me that she is enjoying none of this—shows no signs of relenting.
The poet Robert Duncan once said that responsibility is “the ability to respond.” Of course, none of us has a constitutional right to appear on Columbia University radio, and Stone can still say whatever she wants elsewhere. But at issue here is more than just the fate of one radio appearance, or the nuances of a single sentence. The producers of Studio A did not offer Laurie Stone the opportunity to answer their criticism; she has refused to surrender her responsibility for her work in kind. When I asked her what specifically defined this as an instance of censorship, her answer was straightforward: “I was not allowed to say what I wanted and also come on the show. No one explained what in the sentence violated the university’s values. Speaking out against religious practice? Does religious practice need defending in this world? Really?”
Note: In light of events that have followed the election of Donald Trump, Laurie Stone has issued a comment on Islamophobic attacks.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.