Does ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Deserve PEN’s Freedom of Expression Courage Award? A Conversation

Earlier this week, six authors — Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Peter Carey, and Taiye Selasi — announced their withdrawal as literary hosts of this year’s PEN America gala, over the group’s acknowledgment of Charlie Hebdo with its annual Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Responding to what Kushner referred to as the magazine’s “cultural intolerance,” the writers met with quick condemnation from both PEN itself and one of its loudest spokesmen, Salman Rushdie.

So, who’s right? Is the Charlie Hebdo staff’s martyrdom enough to justify honoring them? Or should an award like this be reserved for work that PEN and its constituency actually endorse? Flavorwire Editor-at-Large Sarah Seltzer and Literary Editor Jonathon Sturgeon found themselves on the opposite sides of these questions. Below, each argues their point of view.

Teju Cole
Teju Cole

Sarah Seltzer: An unfortunate side effect of the Charlie Hebdo massacre has been the rush by people of all political stripes to fit a devastating, somewhat singular tragedy into their own narrative. To xenophobia-minded right-wingers, the dead are pure Western martyrs at the hands of Islamism. To pious left wingers, Hebdo‘s forays into bigoted territory — in the name of satire — and staffers’ position as white men in xenophobic France make them unworthy of public veneration.

To complicate the narrative, I’d like to discuss Elsa Cayat. Cayat was a popular and revered Jewish French psychologist who wrote a column for Charlie Hebdo “about topics including parental authority, the ‘birth of the Holocaust,’ and her last article for the January 7 issue of the paper, ‘Christmas is really a Pain in the Ass.’ (Noël, ça fait vraiment chier.)” In her existence as a writer, Cayat would get phone calls calling her a “dirty Jew” and threatening her with death for publishing with this particular magazine (she also contributed to other publications and books). To my knowledge, she herself never penned anything particularly offensive to any group. Instead, ignoring these threats, Elsa Cayat woke up on the day of the massacre and attended a meeting with her fellow writers and artists. There, she was gunned down.

Cayat’s life and work has been largely erased by the back-and-forth debate over Charlie Hebdo. But the controversy over the PEN award raises a few questions: Ought we refuse to honor Elsa Cayat’s courage because some of her colleagues published offensive cartoons? On the other hand, was she more worthy of honor than they were because her work appears to us to be benign, maybe even useful, compared to their provocative or downright cruel-seeming creations? What about Bernard Maris, a Marxist economist who wrote about, well, the economy? Or Mustapha Ourrad, simply a copy editor? These two were also slain in the offices of Charlie Hebdo along with their colleagues, a cop assigned to protect them, and a janitor. Their names, and their stories, remind us that the Charlie Hebdo dead were human beings, artists, and writers, with different backgrounds and reasons for showing up that day.

Awards ceremonies are silly yet informative. During their course, speeches, slideshows, and videos afford us an opportunity to learn about the awardees. Sure, the PEN awards may be self-congratulatory literary theater. But they also may serve to return these dead people to their humanity, to say: They are neither symbols of Western arrogance nor of Western rightness, but rather flawed artists practicing their craft in the face of terror. The silencing power of violence ensures that the dead cannot speak on their own behalf, offer us context, explain their work’s implications or their political leanings. To honor them, therefore, even while being troubled by their work, might be a chance to give them a voice beyond the propaganda, to inquire into what motivated them — ideals, artistic techniques, and yes, courage. By listening to their stories, we might come to understand what even the most scrupulously social justice-minded among us have in common with them, and what therefore makes us vulnerable to violence too.

An award for free speech need not focus on “good” or “useful” speech. Free speech test cases are quite often the contrary: divisive, upsetting, disgusting even. Before I wrote this piece, I made myself pass a hypocrisy test. I thought about a particular site that has personally attacked me and many of my friends, a site that is sexist, racist, and barely literate at times, certainly less clever than Charlie Hebdo at its worst. If this site’s staff were getting credible, regular death threats and its offices were firebombed, and if it kept publishing its vile trash after getting those threats, and if half of the staff was then summarily executed, and if even then they still published their vile trash, I would indeed support their receipt of the PEN award. I would even stand up and applaud. I think their courage would inspire me, a feminist who stands opposed to pretty much everything they write.

All this is to say that I certainly don’t think Charlie Hebdo‘s staffers are unimpeachable, above critique, or sainted. Yes, they may not have been honored if they hadn’t been attacked, but we stand in the changed reality carved out by brutality. The killers turned these writers into symbols, then political opportunists whitewashed the complex meaning of their varied work. Being honored by PEN, a group for artists facing threats to speech, might turn them back into artists. I fear that by refusing to attend (which is well within their rights), a few authors have turned them back into symbols. La plus ca change, as the French say.

Salman Rushdie
Salman Rushdie

Jonathon Sturgeon: Sarah is (unsurprisingly) way more generous and respectful than most critics of the six authors who have chosen to protest the “freedom of expression” award PEN plans for Charlie Hebdo. So I’ll make some points about her argument, and then I’ll make some other points. But I want to start by noting that both Sarah and PEN use a similar approach to remind the authors about principle givens. In the case of PEN, the organization weirdly asserts that they do not “demand uniformity across their ranks,” as if they are a generous militant organization. Sarah also reminds us that it is “well within [the] rights” of Teju Cole and the dissenting authors not to attend the dinner. Part of the point, I think, is that we already knew that. We don’t need to limit test our rights to acknowledge that we have them. And if it’s fine for these authors to dissent: what’s the problem?

Sarah begins with an example of a certain editorial quality we might ascribe to Charlie Hebdo: its content is perhaps more variable than dissenters would admit. Her example is Elsa Cayat, a murdered Charlie Hebdo columnist who was not racist. Sarah asks: “[O]ught we refuse to honor Elsa Cayat’s courage because some of her colleagues published offensive cartoons?” Well, there are several points to be made here. For starters, PEN is not honoring Elsa Cayat but Charlie Hebdo as the “symbol” Sarah later fears. So, under this rubric, you’re still asking the dissenting authors to support an editorial entity they consider hateful. Next, there is the complicated question of whether someone is more deserving of an award than every other person precisely because she was murdered — even though, it should be said, she knowingly shared a masthead with individuals who produced racist content. This last point seems to be the one that bothers most people. (I’m not sure about Sarah.) They can’t imagine that the answer isn’t necessarily “yes,” and I don’t know how to convince them. But even if they were right, there are other candidates for this award, other journalists — like those who died covering Syria, for example — who never committed racist material to print.

One question I still have for Sarah is whether Charlie Hebdo’s editorial content should be a factor in the award. By giving two different examples, she seems to be making an argument for, “Why not Charlie Hebdo?” instead of, “Charlie Hebdo is most deserving.” The problem is that Charlie Hebdo is not most deserving. Against her argument that Charlie Hebdo’s content was more variable, I’d point out (again) that other journalists died whose content was more uniformly “enlightening” and less blatantly marginalizing and racist than Charlie Hebdo’s. Against the argument that content is beside the point, that Charlie Hebdo is being awarded on the basis of its subversive approach to freedom of expression, I would remind Sarah that even the editor of Charlie Hebdo made the point that the staff could not just write whatever they wanted. They could be fired for it. So it doesn’t seem that Charlie Hebdo satisfies either principle to the degree PEN thinks they do.

In the case of PEN, president Andrew Solomon made things clear yesterday by admitting that Charlie Hebdo is being recognized not for their content but their courage. (I immediately thought of the poet Geoffrey Hill’s line: “courage / unflinchingly declines into sour rage.”). It’s on this basis that the authors dissent. As Glenn Greenwald and others have pointed out, this argument leads PEN into a reductio ad absurdum where they’d likewise have to award an egregiously racist member of the KKK — something they probably wouldn’t do. (Sarah is more consistent: she argues that she would applaud a site that is “sexist, racist and barely literate.”) I personally wouldn’t award a member of the KKK or Charlie Hebdo — variably racist or not. And I can see why these authors would reject the steeper symbolism of hosting an award that honors Charlie Hebdo’s work (or existence). There are, anyway, better exemplars of courage. I would also remind PEN and Salman Rushdie that the etymology of the word courage implies heart — something Charlie Hebdo has not always shown.

And one final thing I’d like to point out: it wasn’t PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo that generated this discussion. Charlie Hebdo was already loudly and widely and even maniacally supported. It was the dissenting act of these authors to oppose the award that redistributed the way we can think and talk and write about free expression in the current moment. There is, I would argue, some courage in that.

Rachel Kushner
Rachel Kushner

Sarah Seltzer: To respond quickly to Jonathon’s points, I’ll just note that we Americans in fact know very little about actual Charlie Hebdo content, beyond five or six inflammatory covers over several years (which in the context of French politics were all actually anti-racist in intent if admittedly not effect).

Most of their content was local and political, somewhere between The Onion and Mad Magazine. There are so many layers of context we’re missing, and it was certainly my hope that this awards process might help us understand that context. To the question of whether the award is solely being given because of the murders, I’d add the magazine was chosen not just because its staff died, but because they died while poking fun, for poking fun. Satire is a cornerstone of a free society, even satire that misses the mark. There’s nothing shameful about honoring a magazine whose tragedy was galvanizing; we know it boosted PEN’s membership and raised the profile of their work around the world. The many people who joined PEN in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre understood what values they supported by doing so: free speech and unfettered expression, not Islamophobia or forced secularism.

Here is where I come from on a more personal level: I am a feminist writer who has faced down my small but potent share of trolls who crossed the border from noxious to downright scary. So yes, I admit to feeling an affinity for these French satirists, these proud shit-stirrers, even while disagreeing with them at times. I have seen my colleagues’ publications’ offices picketed and targeted by unhinged-seeming folks, and I worry. For everyone who shares that experience, I have admiration for their courage, and appreciation for their sacrifice. But I don’t wish to dwell in the realm of the serious too long. My main point is that I always encourage more speech rather than less, engagement rather than cultural freeze-outs, discussion rather than silence. For instance, that has been my longtime position on cultural boycotts of Israel, on cultural boycotts of boycotters of Israel, and on boycotts of boycotters’ boycotts of Israel. I think it’s better to show up and talk than not show up at all.

To that end, I admire one PEN gala host who disagrees with Charlie Hebdo and with Salman Rushdie, but who is attending anyway because of her support for PEN’s work: