Authors Protest PEN Charlie Hebdo Honor, Horror

In Editorial & Opinion by Roger Tagholm

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Roger Tagholm considers whether authors pulling out of the PEN ceremony honoring Charlie Hebdo was the appropriate reaction.

By Roger Tagholm

Charlie Hebdo's cover the week of the killings.

Charlie Hebdo’s cover the week of the killings.

Oh God. This issue again. It’s almost too difficult to talk about (see our previous response). The big name authors — Peter Carey and Michael Ondaatje, along with the U.S. novelist Rachel Kushner, the Nigerian-Ghanaian writer and photographer Taiye Selasi, the U.S. writer Francine Prose and the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole — have all pulled out of a PEN gala in New York on May 5 at which the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is due to receive a Freedom of Expression Courage Award.

Salman Rushdie has voiced his scorn at his fellow authors’ opposition to the PEN award, and Jo Glanville, director of English PEN said this week that “one of the most important, if uncomfortable, responsibilities for any free speech advocate is to defend the right to express speech which may be shocking, disturbing or offensive.”

One immediately wants to agree, but then I bring it down to everyday life here in multicultural London. Let’s imagine your daughter is at one of the city’s extremely diverse state schools. She has friends who are Muslims. They come over on play-dates, sleepovers. Often, they are quite western, but their parents — and especially their grandparents, who may have come to the UK with them — have much of their country of origin about them in their manner and values.

You meet them when they come to collect. Would you want to offend them? Would you want to knowingly upset them? It seems to me this isn’t so much about freedom of speech as common human decency and politeness. Charlie Hebdo should visit London’s state schools and see what tolerance and understanding looks like. The schools are full of anti-racism posters, full of “Some people are gay. Get over it” posters, full of posters about gender/LBGT issues. I do not think schools would put the Charlie Hebdo cartoons on a notice board. It would upset too many pupils, too many parents, too many staff.

Similarly, imagine a large company — a publishing house even (and here you really will have to use your imagination to think of a diverse publishing house) – where many Muslims are working. Would you put one of the cartoons up in the staff room to champion freedom of speech?

London is a huge, fabulous, multicultural city, with its state schools in particular showing how we can all rub along together in mutual respect. As has been said many times, with freedom of expression comes responsibility. Just because something can be written or drawn, doesn’t necessarily mean it should. What happened to the staff of Charlie Hebdo was an abomination, but as in any mixed community, one must be aware of sensitivities and act in a way that furthers harmony.

About the Author

Roger Tagholm

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Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).