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We tell stories to pass the time; to establish intimacy with the people who listen; to unwind sense from the spool of an incomprehensible world. In an era obsessed with statistics, popular arguments tend toward economic and quantitative measurements of everything. Arithmetic reveals profound truths and provides an orderly vocabulary for them, and our digital times rely on the illimitable crunching of data. Too often, however, an opposition is posed between the quants and the storytellers, as though only one lot had access to the truth. Neither of the primary filters of our experience is more honest than the other. Just as people are right-handed or left-handed, some tend to be more numerate and others, more literate. Some are fully ambidextrous in this regard, but most people think more in sums or more in turns of phrase, more literally or more metaphorically, more in the land mass of fact or in the constantly shifting currents of perception.
Both vocabularies are needed to describe anything lucidly; either one by itself tends toward distortion. Deep math is highly imagined, while writing must hew toward evidence or it becomes dangerous and tiresome. Science draws on numbers, but it also draws on the ability to see things afresh — to imagine archetypes that link disparate phenomena. Money exists in specific amounts, but how we get and spend it almost inevitably hinges on bewildering tales. Wars are waged with tactics and logistics by massive numbers of soldiers across hard-fought acres or territory, and summarized by casualty counts, but they are remembered in stories, from The Aeneid to Redeployment. As candidates and advocates gear up for the 2016 election, the two modes of thinking collide explicitly: the winners will need a majority of votes, but to get those votes, they will need to provide compelling narratives.
I have just accepted the presidency of PEN American Center, the world’s leading organization advocating for literature, the defense of free speech, and the unfettered exchange of information and ideas. It is a comradeship of fiction and nonfiction writers, journalists, editors, poets, playwrights, translators, agents and publishers—and devoted readers who are equally impassioned about these issues. I join a roster of such PEN crusaders as Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, James Baldwin, and Salman Rushdie.
I accept this position with the sure knowledge that freedom is both narrative and statistical. How many poets and novelists are in prison? How many countries criminalize objective journalism? In Mexico, more than a hundred journalists have been murdered since the millennium, and 90 percent of those cases have never been investigated. How many people are persecuted for expressing unpopular views or populist antigovernment views? How much will it cost to mount effective campaigns to lower these numbers? How many letters do we have to send to foreign leaders before they release those held unjustly? How many lawsuits do we have to join? Closer to home, how many copies does a book have to sell for its author to be able to feed himself or her family, and how widely need it be distributed to change people’s thinking?
These numbers all matter. And so do the stories. Raef Badawi, a Saudi blogger, since January has been suffering 50 lashes a week (which well may prove fatal, with his 20-week sentence) for “insulting Islam” and “founding a liberal website.” An American was recently hacked to death in his native Bangladesh because of his qualms about “the virus of faith.” Assaults on free speech for gay people in much of Africa are at an all-time high. Ilham Tohti has been sentenced to life in prison for writing openly about the Uyghur experience. And the National Security Administration seems still to be engaged in massive interception and search of our email.
There is an arc of experience in which free expression informs the lives of those who enjoy it, in which literature is presumed capable of ameliorating evil. In The Rebel, Albert Camus wrote, “The only way to confront a world without freedom is to become so absolutely free that one makes one’s own existence an act of rebellion.” His libertarian argument may rally people who have the capacity for such audacious inner freedom, but oppression constrains most people’s liberty, both internal and external. PEN will go on accumulating the numbers that we need to substantiate our points; its members, from 30 centers from the Philippines to Belarus to Venezuela, will go on generating the narratives through which we learn what freedom is and how to live it.
Nothing facilitates rebellion better than a good story.