Below is an excellent short interview of Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN American Center, by Jeff Stein of New York Non Profit Media. Nossel recently made headlines when PEN took money from the Israeli government as a “champion” of its literary festival, and Nossel dismissed the urging of leading writers to boycott that government’s sponsorship.
In this interview, Nossel justifies a PEN award to the French publication Charlie Hebdo, saying that those satirists worked the “outer precincts of free expression, a place that most of us don’t want to tread,” even if they could also be offensive; but then when the subject is BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel) as a free speech issue, Nossel hems and haws and seems to agree that BDS is a free speech issue but says campuses should be able to make rules to create a “respectful community,” and suggests that BDS makes some people feel “isolated, vulnerable, marginalized, even threatened.”
Adalah-NY said she dodged the question. She’s vague, but I sense Nossel is advocating two standards: first, praising an “equal opportunity offender” in Charlie Hebdo, while in the second case valorizing the fact that some feel threatened by BDS as reason to set parameters on BDS in a “respectful community.”
Here’s Nossel on Charlie Hebdo:
They were willing to go there even at great personal risk and personal peril… we were pretty clear that what they were engaging in was not hate speech, but mockery and satire directed in a 100 different directions, including at Islam, and that was the most incendiary of it, but they were I believe an equal opportunity offender. They took on religious Jews, they took on the French government, the French right wing. When you talk to people who really understand French and French culture and satire and the language, it fits into a long tradition of French satire. And almost inevitably the target they were skewering was not the member of the religious minority but rather those entrenched extremists, the right wing. and their ostracization of minorities. So it was important to understand the true nature of what they’re doing and also defend their right to go to the outer limit and take those risks that the rest of us I think rightly refrain from.
Jeff Stein then asks if there isn’t a double standard of free expression. There’s been tons of legislation aimed at BDS; and no matter what you think of BDS, isn’t curtailing that speech more accepted in the west than curtailing Charlie Hebdo?
Yeah, that is something we look at. We’re doing a report right now looking at issues of campus speech. That’s been one of the very divisive issues on campus. There have been others: issues of race and misogyny, questions of what makes for a respectful community, and should a campus have parameters over what can and can’t be said, and what belongs on the inside and what belongs on the outside. And so we’re taking a look at that and trying to set out a way that minority views and identities can be respected and embraced but alongside freedom of expression. We don’t think that they should come or need to come at the expense of one another. All kinds of movements, whether it’s for racial equality or gender equality or movements having to do with issues overseas, they all depend on free expression to be able to organize and thrive and get their voice and message out, and we try and be neutral when it comes to those viewpoints, understanding that different speech can be interpreted in different ways.
Some speech can make people feel isolated, vulnerable, marginalized, even threatened, and I think that has to be understood and appreciated. I don’t think you can sweep that aside, but I think you can address those concerns in a way that is consistent with upholding free speech principles so that’s what we try to do.
It seems that Nossel is saying that BDS is a free speech issue, but she respects curbs on it– say to insure a “respectful community” on campus, and to protect those who feel “isolated, vulnerable, marginalized, even threatened.” Would she extend the same understanding to Muslims who are offended by Charlie Hebdo?
A friend writes:
PEN American actually gave an award to Charlie Hebdo, a magazine that is offensive to many Muslims and others, but Nossel resorts to verbal gymnastics when asked about freedom of speech for supporters of rights and equality for Palestinians. She can’t even state support for freedom of expression of BDS, much less give an award to Omar Barghouti or chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, of course.
For PEN freedom of expression is clearly not for all, but depends on who you are.
Note that Nossel previously worked in the Clinton State Department and helped to quash the Goldstone Report, which documented indiscriminate attacks on Gaza civilians, just what Bernie Sanders lately said in New York.
I believe Nossel’s squirming about this issue is all about big donors to liberal organizations– Jews who are also fiercely supportive of Israel.