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We Express Ourselves to Cure the World

Excerpted from Andrew Solomon’s opening remarks at the PEN Literary Gala, New York, May 5, 2015.

Andrew Solomon speaks at the 2015 PEN Literary Gala, May 5, 2015. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan for PEN American Center.

Andrew Solomon speaks at the 2015 PEN Literary Gala, May 5, 2015. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan for PEN American Center.

I originally imagined my remarks for tonight as a benign meditation on the surpassing work PEN is doing around the globe. But one can be castigated for failing to mention the elephant in the room — or in this case, perhaps, the whale in the room. So let me say a few words about the Charlie Hebdo controversy, which has reminded us why PEN exists. The defense of people murdered for their exercise of free speech is at the heart of what PEN stands for. So is the unfettered articulation of opposing viewpoints, as borne out in the impassioned dialogue we have seen over the last 10 days.

Charlie Hebdo’s mission of producing satire aimed at sacred targets endured despite the firebombing of its office in 2011 and the murder of much of its staff in January. Few people are willing to put themselves in peril to build a world in which we are all free to say what we believe. By persisting, Charlie Hebdo’s current staff have proclaimed their own courage, and tonight’s award responds to their refusal to accept the curtailment of lawful speech by those who meet it with violence.

“Words are not deeds,” says Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, but I would disagree. Hate speech is dangerous — Holocaust deniers or the Ku Klux Klan, for example, sow great darkness, and my time in Rwanda brought home to me how easily propaganda can drive ordinary people to appalling acts. Most of the writers in this room wouldn’t write if we didn’t believe in the power of words for good, and if one accepts that capacity, one must also recognize their potential to inflict damage. Grievous lies and incitements to violence must be checked.

At PEN, we defend free speech above its contents. The suppression of controversial ideas does not result in social justice, nor is it a constituent of freedom. Open discourse leads to righteousness more readily than does enforced control, no matter how well-intentioned. The violation of decorum cannot be a punishable infraction, nor grounds for mitigating whatever else you say about slaughter. I came of age in the time of “Silence = Death,” the rallying cry of the 1980s AIDS activists, and I have come to believe that muteness is usually more toxic than any kind of speech. Silence = Death. There is not only courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, but also a radical brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.

Most of us gathered here tonight can say what we want. Many have ready means to disseminate what we say. It is a common moral value to seek for others the advantages one enjoys, and our privilege comes with an obligation to those whose speech is disallowed. But we fight for global free expression out of more than noblesse oblige. “Until we are all free,” Emma Lazarus wrote, “we are none of us free.” The wide embrace of human diversity implied in Lazarus’ words is our purpose here. Every voice that is muzzled deprives those who might have heard it and detracts from the collective intelligence and experience upon which all of us draw.

Tonight we honor, among others, the fearless Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova who is in jail for exposing rampant corruption. We hope the gala will achieve the concrete goal of helping to secure her release, as the Freedom to Write award has for 35 of the 39 imprisoned honorees on whom it has been bestowed. In one of her letters from jail, Ismayilova implored her supporters to spurn private diplomacy and speak out on her behalf “publicly and loudly.” Some may find lines and attitudes in her work with which they strongly disagree, as some disagree with Hebdo, but nothing she has written could justify the forced silencing of her voice, nor compromise our respect for her glittering audacity.

We may pity her; we may bewail Ilham Tohti and Liu Xiaobo because they remain imprisoned in China; we may be offended on behalf of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes for “insulting Islam” and “founding a liberal website”; we may be horrified by the hacking to death of American citizen Avijit Roy, killed in Bangladesh because of his qualms about what he called “the virus of faith.” We may deplore the assaults on free speech for gay people from Lagos, Nigeria, to Cairo to Moscow, which are at an all-time high. We may mourn the killing of film director Finn Norgaard in Denmark, as we do the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. We may feel concern for the journalists who have been meted out brutal sentences in Myanmar.

Our concern, however, is not only for those who cannot speak, but also for those who cannot hear. That number includes ourselves; for all our vaunted American freedoms, we are impoverished by these constrictions. We have seen the National Security Agency engaged in massive interception and search of our email, which compromises writers’ sense of freedom, as evidenced by a recent PEN survey. We have seen the curtailment of press freedoms in Ferguson, Missouri, as recorded in another PEN report. In the Guantánamo Diary, former PEN staffer Larry Siems has edited the writings of Mohamedou Ould Slahi, about his continuing incarceration at Gitmo despite clear evidence that he has committed no crime. PEN produced the film Reckoning With Torture to call attention to human rights abuses in post–9/11 America and to the whistleblowers who drew attention to the problem, often at the cost of their jobs. PEN has vigorously supported James Risen’s right to refuse to reveal his sources in a federal lawsuit against an ex-CIA agent.

In the 1970s, Aryeh Neier, a refugee from Nazi Germany who was then national director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said of a planned neo-Nazi march in a Jewish neighborhood, “To defend myself, I must restrain power with freedom, even if the temporary beneficiaries are the enemies of freedom.” We have no richer capacity than the ability to formulate and express ideas, and when our right to do so is compromised, our very humanity is undermined. Enforced silence denies the contiguity between our inner and outer selves. The notion that self-expression is liberating has been given new scope as more and more people have turned to language as a remedy. We see this principle at work in the offices of modern psychotherapists and grief counselors; in the increasing popularity of restorative justice; in the Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa; in the U.N. charter and in Gacaca in Rwanda; and in the Internet-enabled explosion of literary memoir, fiction, poetry, journalism, and cartooning. We express ourselves to cure the world.

In 1997, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi asked the American people, “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” In fact, our liberty is contingent on everyone else’s. PEN esteems not only exquisite literature, but also the right of all people to express themselves. In fighting to sustain the freest possible expression here and abroad, we are engaged not in two separate projects, but in a single battle for the open exchange of ideas, because without the deepest choice of words among the widest population, we cannot be our authentic selves. PEN stands proudly at the intersection of language and justice — we will be the literary voice in the movement for human rights, and the human rights voice in the domain of literature.