Is self-censorship a problem for writers?

Anyone who has come to PEN America’s town hall discussion of writers and self-censorship on Wednesday night expecting the fictionalized ...


Anyone who has come to PEN America’s town hall discussion of writers and self-censorship on Wednesday night expecting the fictionalized literary punches of yesteryear – not to mention the all-out war of modern social media combat – would have come out disappointed.

No one shouted “cancel the culture!” In the half-crowded theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what the hundred or so live viewers (and those who logged in online) had a sprawling, passionate but extremely civil conversation between four prominent writers on art, identity, appropriation, and the state of freedom of speech.

These are subjects that have agitated literary circles, including PEN itself, which has increasingly balanced its defense of free speech with consideration of the ways in which marginalized people may be forced to speak up to begin with. But playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar, president of PEN, introduced the event by asserting the freedom of speech against those on the left who reject it as a mask for power and those on the right who use it as a club.

“A generalized and punitive stridence descending on us from all sides,” he said. And writers, he said, are “caught in the middle.”

The event was pretty much that middle. There were points of tension, but little clear disagreement. That’s not to say that there was clear agreement either, including on whether there is a problem and, if so, what it is.

John McWhorter, linguist at Columbia University and author of the new book “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America,” opened the discussion, which was moderated by Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN, on a direct note. . “To be a writer today, in today’s climate, is to be someone who certainly censors himself in one way or another,” he said.

McWhorter, who also writes a newsletter for the Opinion section of the New York Times, noted his public identity as an “anti-conformist” on racial issues. But does he hold his tongue on certain subjects? Absoutely.

He recalled an academic lecture he gave in the mid-1990s, on Creole languages ​​and women, which “some in the audience chose to interpret as offensive and sexist.”

Listening to their criticism, he said, “I thought, ‘I don’t deserve this.’ And I decided to never say or write anything about women issues or sexism again. “

Wajahat ali, the author of the forthcoming book “Go Back to Where You Came From: And Other Helpful Recommendations on How to Become American,” said the outcry over the “culture cancellation” was a secondary spectacle to legislation across the country aimed at banning the teaching of critical race theory or “divisive concepts”, or efforts in Texas to ban hundreds of books school libraries.

“Let’s take stock of what’s really going on and what are the forces that are really attacking freedom of expression,” he said.

As for self-censorship, Ali said it was something writers of color should always commit to, to avoid offending the wardens.

“We had no right to make mistakes,” he said. “You can’t fail and write endlessly about canceling culture at prestigious outlets. “

If this might sound like a dig at McWhorter’s (Ali’s former teacher, he noted), it wasn’t. Social media tends to “flatten us out,” he said.

“So John becomes his last editorial, then I have to hate him, and he has to hate me,” Ali said, “because I don’t agree with his concept of“ waking up ”and we have to fight up to death. “

The other two panelists offered a more literary approach to the question of who should be allowed, or allowed, to say what. Jennifer Finney Boylan, memorialist and transgender activist, explored the issue of cultural appropriation, a topic on which she said she has “two brains”.

Boylan, an opinion writer for the New York Times, cited the recent fury over the novel “American Dirt”, what if its white author had the right to tell a story (badly, some would say) about Mexican migrants in the United States.

“Surely, if freedom of speech means anything, it means the right to tell the stories we want to tell, to respond to the demands of our own imagination, period,” she said. “You can accuse writers of not writing well. But erasing artists because we don’t like their art is despicable.

But at the same time, she said, as a transgender person, she understood the frustration at work that distorts your experience. “Maybe a single movie or book doesn’t matter that much,” she said. But “if you think defending free speech is really very important, then you must think it matters. A single movie or book can really shape the way people see the world. “

Carmen Maria Machado, memorialist and fiction writer, expressed concern over the impact of recent fierce online debates on the ethics of the use of lived experiences in fiction.

Fiction, she said, is a “magpie” art, which necessarily involves taking pieces not only from the imagination or direct experience, but from our observations of others.

“Not all stories are mine to tell,” she said. “But it’s so weird creating general statements of who can do what.”

She added: “I am concerned that fiction writers, especially those who are forming now, will be blocked and self-censored.”

Not everyone agreed that the hold was always negative. At one point, McWhorter broadcast what he suggested was a semi-forbidden thought: that the intensity of the racial justice protests against the police murder of George Floyd was in part about a desire for after months of pandemic isolation “to merge”, “to go outside”, “to belong to each other”, which was then militarized by an ideological faction.

“In May 2020, a certain ideology used social media to become particularly dominant and scare some people,” he said.

Boylan protested, softly. “You talk about self-censorship like it’s a bad thing,” she said. “Under another name, maybe it’s a sense of awareness that our words affect others? You can’t and maybe shouldn’t say what you want.

But if there was one general point of agreement, it was that Twitter was mostly bad. Machado said she deleted her account several months ago. “Social media just creates these incredibly fast-paced bad conversations that go so quickly to the side that there’s no getting over it,” she said.

McWhorter, who said he took to Twitter “six or seven times a day,” said it prevented him from reading – let alone writing – books.

In one recent test in The Atlantic, adapted from a lecture, Akhtar lamented how the incitement of online discourse has led us to form opposing “agglomerations of indignation” affirmed by “belonging slogans”.

Boylan, with a wry smile, made the point a little simpler. “One of the reasons I became a writer,” she said, “is because I wanted people to like me.”

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