The writer Monica Byrne presents us with an example of well-meaning but confused reasons for objecting to an award’s being given to Charlie Hebdo. The example is interesting because I keep finding the objections and protests under-explained and under-motivated, so I remain curious about what exactly the protesters think they’re protesting.
She titles her post “The PENAmerican award I wish I could give tonight.” Ok, but wishing you could give a different award is nowhere near a reason for protesting one actually being given, especially under these particular circumstances.
If you missed the news, here’s a summary: PENAmerican, an organization dedicated to free speech in arts and literature, is awarding French magazine Charlie Hebdo for “freedom of expression courage award,” for continuing to print after their entire editorial board was assassinated by extremists. Given the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s content—and the conspicuous attention the assassinations received all over the world, even as journalists are killed daily by their own governments in the countries whose presidents showed up for “solidarity marches” in Paris—several writers (including Teju Cole and Rachel Kushner) resigned from being table hosts at the awards gala. Salman Rushdie excoriated them in The Guardian. Other writers have stepped up to take their places.
“Given the nature of Charlie Hebdo‘s content” with no elaboration on what that nature is conveys the impression that Charlie Hebdo’s content is self-evidently pernicious in some way. The part about conspicuous attention just dangles there, unexplained. How is that any kind of explanation for what follows?
However, she says she gets both sides.
But here’s the thing I wish PENAmerican would get: claims to “freedom of expression” are a mark of privilege in places where oppressed populations are struggling merely to be allowed to live as themselves. For them, freedom of expression is a myth. The very existence of Charlie Hebdo is a manifestation of gross privilege bestowed on one segment of the French population and denied to another.
Well of course it is (except for the word “bestowed”). That’s always the case. It’s a privilege to have readers, it’s a privilege to write or draw for a satirical publication, it’s a privilege to sell copies. But what follows from that? That we should just stop having any writers and cartoonists, magazines and newspapers and books? Should we all be restricted to Twitter?
But you know what, even if we were all restricted to Twitter, privilege would still emerge, because some people would be more interesting or amusing than others.
Obviously an award to writers or cartoonists is not an award to factory workers or domestics. Maybe awards are a bad idea in general. There are plenty of arguments for that idea; I’m pretty sure I’ve made some of them at various times, especially around the Oscars and the “Super Bowl.” But that’s not a reason to withdraw from one award out of many, especially when the people being awarded are survivors of a bloody massacre during an editorial meeting about an anti-racism campaign.
It’s far easier, and far more lazy, to recognize The Organization That Had a Very High-Profile Awful Thing happen to them, than to, say, recognize that the entire Muslim population of France continues to live in the place they call home despite constant state-sanctioned hostility to their rights to life, livelihood, religion, and yes, freedom of expression.
Is it? How much effort was it for Byrne to type that sentence? Not much.
This is, frankly, just more Dear Muslima, albeit for very different reasons and aimed at a very different kind of people. It’s another fallacy of relative privation. There are all sorts of awful things happening all over the planet – Nepal, Nigeria, Syria, North Korea, take your pick – that PEN wasn’t talking about last night because it was talking about other things. But we are allowed to do different things, as our talents and interests suggest. We need writers and cartoonists too, along with aid workers and activists. And in any case Charlie Hebdo is on the side of the marginal and despised, so there’s even less reason to single them out for having privilege “bestowed” on them by fuck knows who.