I have permission to publish the letter that Jennifer Cody Epstein sent to her colleagues who organized the petition opposing the PEN award to Charlie Hebdo. In it she describes doing what I wish more people had done: finding out more and changing her thinking as a result.
Herewith that letter:
Six days ago I received your petition protesting PEN’s decision to award Charlie Hebdo with its 2015 Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. I added my name to the list based on a number of factors, chief among them the fact that while I was sickened by the fatal repercussions of Hebdo’s repeated lampooning of Islam, I was also deeply troubled by the idea that a magazine that seemed to cater shamelessly to Islamophobia (in a nation that has already banned the hajib from its schools, no less) might be celebrated in any way for its work. I was also influenced by the fact that I am currently at work on a historical novel set in Nazi Germany, and found Hebdo’s visual similarities to Der Sturmer jarring, to say the least.
Over the past week, however, I’ve found myself doing further research and considerable soul-searching, and have come to the somewhat chastening conclusion that my decision, while well-intentioned, was misinformed and (quite frankly) wrong.
For one thing, I’ve realized that Der Sturmer was state-sanctioned hate literature in a society where free expression was banned, whereas Hebdo is a free publication deliberately and—yes—courageously celebrating its right to free expression. There is also dismay over yesterday’s shooting in Texas; as writers, should we should really be censoring ourselves on issues that now almost automatically seem to provoke violent retribution, rather than protesting that violence by persevering? (To be honest, such thinking strikes me as more in line with a National Socialist society than a Democratic one).
But my conclusion mainly stems from the fact that at the time I signed the petition, I—like many, I now believe—fundamentally misunderstood Charlie Hebdo’s mission and content. The controversial images—while arguably tasteless, offensive and not even particularly well-drawn—sprang from satire, not hate. It is a profound and crucial difference: if one is to argue for freedom of speech there can be no caveats, no asterisks, no fine print qualifying that “freedom” only applies to expression we don’t consider too upsetting, or doesn’t enrage right-wing fundamentalists with guns. (I think it’s worth noting here that I was also under the misassumption that Hebdo disproportionately lampooned Islam. In fact, as Michael Moynihan points out in his—in my opinion excellent—piece in today’s Daily Beast , the magazine has featured significantly more anti-Christian covers (21) than anti-Islam (7) in the last decade.)
As a writer whose work is largely predicated on diligent and careful research, I am reluctant to admit that in this case, I didn’t do enough of it before sending my name out into the Cloud. Unfortunately, though, that is the conclusion to which I’ve been forced to come, and I thought it best to acknowledge it publically and head-on rather than disingenuously pretending otherwise. I’d therefore like to remove my name from your petition, while also thanking you and the other signatories for the opportunity your letter gave me to struggle with a very central—if thorny—question that impacts all of us as writers.
Jennifer Cody Epstein
An excellent letter, don’t you think? If only more of the dissenters would join her! I find it hard to believe that if they actually considered the facts and arguments that have been presented, they would all continue to insist that Charlie Hebdo is racist and indefensible. Jennifer Cody Epstein told the Morgenbladet journalist that she would welcome the company.