Contrary to media accounts claiming that only 6 PEN members have objected to the group’s decision to bestow Charlie Hebdo with an award, the actual number is currently 145 PEN members (6 writers scheduled to be table heads at this year’s event have withdrawn, and the list includes writers who have served as table heads at prior events). Below is the letter drafted by several of the objecting writers, along with the current full list of signatories:
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April 26, 2015
In March it was announced that the PEN Literary Gala, to be held May 5th 2015, would honor the magazine Charlie Hebdo with 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.
Charles Ramírez Berg
Ami Sands Brodoff
Karen Brown Brooks
Emily M. Danforth
Brent Hayes Edwards
Brian T. Edwards
Hedi El Kholti
Jennifer Cody Epstein
Marlon L. Fick
Peter H. Fogtdal
Linda Nemec Foster
Jonathan T. Hine Jr.
T. Geronimo Johnson
Uzma Aslam Khan
Robert Spencer Knotts
Ruth Ellen Kocher
C. M. Mayo
James McGrath Morris
Joyce Carol Oates
Holly Goldberg Sloan
Alexis M. Smith
Emily Gray Tedrowe
Roy A. Teel Jr.
Jasmine Dreame Wagner
G. K. Wuori
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