This year’s annual PEN American Center gala will be short at least six attendees, the Associated Press reported: the celebrated writers Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi, Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, and Francine Prose, all of whom were supposed to serve as hosts for the event, have withdrawn, citing discomfort with the organization’s plan to honor French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.
Twelve writers, cartoonists, and editors were killed in a brutal massacre at the magazine’s headquarters this January, and the publication will receive a Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the PEN gala in May. Prose, Cole, and the rest of the protestors have criticized Charlie Hebdo for its depictions of Islam, arguing that its mockery of the religion amounts to a slap in the face for France’s marginalized Muslim population.
As AP and the Times point out, the present controversy over the gala reflects the broader debate that flamed up in the wake of the original attacks on the magazine’s offices. While much of the literary community expressed support for Charlie Hebdo, others called the mainstream glorification of the publication into question, pointing to its perceived racism. But many of the loudest participants in the ensuing discussion seemed fairly divorced from the French context — many weren’t French speakers, and some hadn’t even heard of Charlie Hebdo prior to the tragedy, much less read it. My news and Twitter feeds were littered with takes that seemed to materialize out of nowhere: as soon as it was fashionable to have an opinion, opinions seemed to abound.
Although I am a French speaker, I am not familiar enough with Charlie Hebdo to comment on its content — and I encourage others to exercise the same caution before too loudly echoing the sentiment of the PEN gala protestors. As tempting as it is to pass judgment, and as gratifying as it is to express an indignation that we expect others to share, we should exercise epistemic humility in the face of cultures that we don’t fully understand. France has a long history of political satire—and a satirical culture that differs markedly from our own.
It’s important to criticize racism in all its manifestations, and France’s treatment of its Muslim denizens leaves much to be desired. But satire is a fragile, subtle medium. Cultural context is often all that separates bigotry from biting commentary; it’s difficult enough to successfully parse irony in our native tongues.
It’s possible that all six of the writers who have withdrawn from the PEN gala have done their research, and, if so, I commend them for taking an informed stance. As Deborah Eisenberg wrote in her elegant letters to the head of PEN America: “Freedom of expression … is a very broad designation. Anything at all can be expressed, and just because something is expressed doesn’t ensure that it has either virtue or meaning.” Her point is well taken. But as online discussions tend to devolve into name calling — a phenomenon much discussed in the wake of the recent publication of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed — it’s important to emulate Eisenberg’s thoughtfulness rather than the outraged masses on Twitter. The best posture for those of us who have seen only a few Charlie Hebdo drawings — which is to say, most of the rest of us — is one of healthy skepticism towards the general discourse surrounding the affair.