Glenn Greenwald thinks people have been misrepresenting the arguments of Francine Prose and Deborah Eisenberg.
To defend the award to Charlie Hebdo, PEN officials argued that the award did not constitute an endorsement of the content of the cartoonists’ speech, but rather, only a recognition that they were courageous in expressing themselves. The principle articulated by PEN was clear: a person is deserving of this award if they continue to express their views even in the face of credible threats of violence, and especially if they pay for their right to free expression with their lives.
The objecting PEN writers believe this principle to be invalid and contrived. To prove that point, they offered a hypothetical example that was classic reductio ad absurdum: suppose a KKK leader continued to publish white supremacist filth in the face of credible threats of violence, and was killed for doing so: of course PEN would not bestow the KKK with a courage award, and almost nobody would be comfortable if they had.
And that far, I agree with the objecting writers. I think PEN put it too strongly when it said that. (Maybe PEN would say yes, a murdered KKK propagandist would be eligible for a courage award from PEN; in that case I would disagree with PEN.) But I don’t consider it a reductio ad absurdum but just an illustration of how the claim says too much. It’s not absurd enough to be a reductio ad absurdum. I think it’s just a competing example; I don’t know if there’s a technical word for that.
Their point was that the award is not merely about courage, but is clearly linked to a positive assessment of the content of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, as proven by the fact that PEN would never give the award to someone, such as a KKK leader, who expresses heinous views. And since these PEN writers don’t view the content of the cartoons as worthy of admiration, they oppose the award. They believe Charlie Hebdo should have full free speech rights, but not be admired for the content of their speech: the most basic distinction when it comes to free speech advocacy. That’s all there is to it.
Yes, but that’s not all that such examples can do. They can also poison the well. They can manipulate people who hear and see them. They can re-frame the discussion. The Nazis or the KKK can be a competing example but also a comparison, at least implicitly.
In her original letter kicking off the controversy, Deborah Eisenberg raised the examples of racist fraternities and Nazi propagandists who express widely reviled views that provoke recrimination and threats, and asked: “Is there not a difference — a critical difference — between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable and enthusiastically awarding such expression?”
See there? Is that a reductio, or a comparison? It looks to me like more of the latter than the former. I think she’s saying Charlie Hebdo is bad in the same way that racist fraternities and Nazi propagandists are bad. I don’t think it’s at all clear that she considers the racist fraternities and Nazi propagandists obviously far more awful than Charlie; I think she’s saying they’re all much of a muchness.
Another objecting PEN writer, Francine Prose, wrote an incredibly clear op-ed in the Guardian this morning making clear exactly what her objections are (and are not), and similarly wrote:
I believe that Charlie Hebdo has every right to publish whatever they wish.
But that is not the same as feeling that Charlie Hebdo deserves an award. As a friend wrote me: the First Amendment guarantees the right of the neo-Nazis to march in Skokie, Illinois, but we don’t give them an award. The bestowing of an award suggests to me a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done, and for the value of that work and though I admire the courage with which Charlie Hebdo has insisted on its right to provoke and challenge the doctrinaire, I don’t feel that their work has the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor.
Same thing, although less coherent – she seems to have thought that Charlie’s badness wasn’t obvious enough in comparison to neo-Nazis and so it was necessary to add badness + lack of necessity to make a big enough sum. But that’s not clearly because she wasn’t trying to say they were both much the same kind of thing.
Greenwald then gets indignant with Padraig Reidy for taking what Prose wrote at face value. Hmph. I don’t think Padraig is the one making an error here.