Philip Slayton is the president of PEN Canada. Tasleem Thawar is PEN Canada's executive director.
On May 5, PEN American Center will honour the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with its 2015 PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award. Six writers, including Michael Ondaatje and Francine Prose, who had previously agreed to host tables at the annual PEN Gala in New York, have now withdrawn from the event where the award will be presented, raising questions about whether awarding the magazine a prize is an endorsement of work that some find intolerant and offensive and could contribute to the further marginalization of already disenfranchised groups.
In the immediate aftermath of the January attack PEN Canada joined PEN International, PEN American Centre, other PEN centres in releasing statements of solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, stating unequivocally that freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend; no one should be killed for drawing a picture. Putting aside questions of whether or not the cartoons themselves were laudable, Charlie Hebdo's work brought a legitimate question into the public eye: are we living in societies where a few individuals, operating without regard for the law, can chill free speech by dictating which ideas are permissible, and which will attract violent retribution?
Of course, this reality is the norm in many parts of the world, and it is one that PEN actively seeks to change. Journalists covering sensitive issues are murdered in many countries, including Mexico, Honduras, and recently Bangladesh. In India earlier this year, fiction writer Perumal Murugan declared that he would stop writing in response to harassment by religious groups. PEN centres everywhere routinely recognize writers, like these, whose work puts their lives in danger. So why has PEN American Center's decision to honour Charlie Hebdo provoked such controversy?
Clearly, Charlie Hebdo's right to publish should be defended. But does an obligation to defend something entail an obligation to celebrate it? We often recognize and celebrate writers who are silenced by the state or other powerful groups – still the primary threats to free speech around the world. And PEN has always been committed, as stated in the PEN charter, to dispelling race, class and national hatreds. This is why celebrating Charlie Hebdo is complicated. While Charlie Hebdo journalists were victims of a horrific attack on free expression, there are good arguments that regardless of their intentions, their work can be used to promote hate and further marginalize an already disenfranchised community.
The same argument holds true for PEN American's impending celebration of Charlie Hebdo. Certainly Charlie Hebdo was courageous in continuing to publish, despite threats and, indeed, the murders of its journalists. In awarding this prize, PEN American clearly distinguishes between agreeing with Charlie Hebdo's message, and applauding their bravery. But, as the six writers who are boycotting the PEN Gala are aware, despite intentions, the PEN award may very well be perceived as an endorsement of a magazine that continues to lampoon a disempowered group with scathing and provocative cartoons, and used to bolster the arguments of those who seek to further marginalize them. No organization can expect unwavering support from within its ranks when it makes difficult choices on sensitive matters. PEN represents writers with widely differing viewpoints – it has always embraced controversy and encouraged dissent.