“The wall that we sense is there marks the boundary of society’s basic moral values, which in sum are everything we define ourselves by and base our lives on.”
For the past 14 years, PEN International and Oxfam Novib have highlighted the work of remarkable and courageous writers with the presentation of the Oxfam Novib/PEN Awards for Freedom of Expression. At this year’s awards ceremony, Karl Ove Knausgård delivered his Free the Word! keynote address. 2015’s award recipients are Libyan writer and journalist Razan al-Maghrabi, Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist Jila Bani-Yaghoub and her husband and fellow journalist Bahman Ahmadi-Amouee, and Sudanese poet, writer, and journalist Abdelmoneim Rahama.
Everyone who writes, be it novels, newspaper articles, Facebook posts, diaries, or letters, will sooner or later run up against the limit of what cannot, shall not, should not, or must not be written. This limit is like an invisible wall, and to force one’s way across it is painful, it is felt in the body as anxiety, an inner clenching, a feeling of dread: If I cross this boundary, it will have consequences, something will happen to me or to someone else because of it. At the same time, there is something titillating and sensational about the feeling, because on the other side of it lies the forbidden, and the forbidden has, as soon as we become aware of it as a possibility, a great power of attraction. If one wishes to speak about freedom of expression, and to really understand what kind of a right it is and how important it is, it is this boundary that one has to speak about, it is this invisible wall that must be localized and defined. Where is it? Why is it there? What does it consist of? What does it seek to protect?
Everyone who writes will sooner or later run up against the limit of what cannot, shall not, should not, or must not be written, and almost everyone will simply shy away and refrain from writing it. This is the case because the invisible wall stands there not as an obstacle to something good, something desirable which we deny ourselves, but to the opposite: The invisible wall stands between us and everything that we don’t want, everything we don’t want to see, and everything we don’t want to acknowledge. The wall that we sense is there, marks the boundary of society’s basic moral values, which in sum are everything we define ourselves by and base our lives on. It is there for a purely practical reason, which is to enable many people to live together in one society. The transgressions can be minor, for instance, that the way you perceive someone close to you will offend him or her if you write about it, so that the choice is between truth and consideration, honesty or decency. Or it can be something of greater import: such as political issues on which there is a general consensus and which will stigmatize you if you write that you disagree; or a religion which some hold sacred and that you are critical of, and ridicule; or it can be to describe or defend something that most people find disgusting, such as pedophilia or rape. It is this which makes freedom of expression such a paradoxical and complicated right: By permitting that which cannot, shall not, should not or must not be said, it permits that which is evil, bad, subversive, which destroys what we stand for and what we wish to be.
But if freedom of expression exists for the sake of evil and everything we don’t want, then why in the world is it so important? Why on earth should we defend it?
There are many answers to that question. One is that morality, that is, society’s perception or sense of what is desirable or not desirable, is not a stable entity, but something that is always changing. The reason French society in the latter half of the 19th century wanted to ban Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs Du Mal, while it seems absurd to us today, is simply because French 19th-century morality, its boundaries for what could and could not be said, were quite different than ours. What was not desirable then, is desirable now, and perhaps it was precisely those works that violated the boundary of the forbidden that made this shift possible. Yes, perhaps all shifts in morality and perceptions of reality are caused by such transgressions: When Giordano Bruno stated, toward the end of the 16th century, that the Earth orbited the Sun, it was not a neutral or matter-of-fact scientific statement, it was a grotesque assertion that challenged everything people believed in. As we know, Bruno was burnt at the stake for this and other statements that went against established opinion.
A very different example of the changeability of morals could be the different ways in which Hitler’s book Mein Kampf has been perceived over the ninety years that have passed since it was written. Some years ago, I made up my mind to read it, since I was going to write about Adolf Hitler and Nazism. I brought the book with me on a plane and had intended to read it in the hours at my disposal during the flight. But as soon as I reached for the book and was about to take it out of my bag, I realized that I couldn’t do it. It was impossible to sit on board a plane reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Why? This is a book that we all experience as evil, not in a literary sense, but in a real way. It is the only book that I have read with a feeling of physical discomfort, and not just reading it—even having it on my bookshelf makes me uncomfortable. But it wasn’t always like this. When Mein Kampf was published in Germany in 1926, it was ridiculed in all the major newspapers. It was considered inferior, vulgar, and unintelligent; one paper reviewed it under the headline Mein Krampf, another wrote that the book represented the end of Hitler’s political career. A mere ten years later, a whole new society was being built up around the same book and its values. The book was the same, but morals were different. Hannah Arendt has formulated better than anyone else what happened in Germany in the 1930s, when she wrote:
“And just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ even though man’s natural desires and inclinations may at times be murderous, so the law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: ‘Thou shalt kill,’ although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people. Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it—the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.”
I turn to this, the most extreme occurrence in European history in the last century, because it casts such a sharp light on two different aspects of freedom of expression. The first of these has to do with courage, the second with tolerance. I am quite certain that all of us present here tonight are opposed to Nazism and anti-Semitism, to totalitarianism and fundamentalism as a matter of course. But what if we conduct a thought experiment, and imagine ourselves living under conditions similar to those which occurred in German society in the late 1930s—how would we have behaved? The people who shouted ‘Yes, we want total war’ were ordinary people; the only difference between them and us is that we have never been confronted with the same possibilities and the same temptations that they were. ‘Oh no,’ we say, ‘Not me, never!’ In doing so, we imagine an actual choice, between the proud, free, good individual on the one hand, and the rabid Nazi masses on the other, and the choice is not a difficult one. But this presupposes an external gaze, a position on the outside; it is something else entirely to be on the inside, subject to the enormous pressures of society, not as something hostile or alien to us, but on the contrary, as something that we are a part of, perhaps even as something that is experienced as good.
So what would we have done, if we were living in a democracy that had in a very short time become a totalitarian dictatorship, had imposed new laws, and begun to enforce them with brutal force? Would we have opposed it, would we have protested and agitated against all the violence and the injustices being committed around us? I have read a great deal about that time in history, and I have often posed myself this question. But I am unable to answer it. I don’t think anyone else can, either. We can neither know what we would have thought—as we know, in Germany the majority chose to follow Hitler and Nazism—or what we would have done if we had disagreed with the Nazis. Would we speak our minds if it meant being persecuted? Would we say what we think if we could be arrested for it? Will we speak out if doing so means that we will be tortured? Will we say what we think if we know that it might get us killed?
The courage it takes to speak out against totalitarian or fundamentalist power, knowing full well the possible personal consequences of doing so, is beyond comprehension. And it is this incomprehensible courage that we are gathered here tonight to honor, represented by Abdelmoneim Rahama from Sudan, Razan al-Maghrabi from Libya, Jila Bani-Yaghoub and Bahman Ahmadi-Amouee from Iran. All of them are writers, journalists, and activists who have been persecuted for their opinions and expressions, and who have been willing to pay an indescribably high price for what they believe in.
Courage is one aspect of the freedom of expression, it is the cost borne by the individual who claims the right to use it. What the consequences will be depends on the kind of society in which the statements are uttered, and they can range from having one’s friends and family turn their backs on one, to being condemned by the general public, to persecution, arrest, torture, and death. Tolerance is another aspect of the freedom of expression; it is what is required of the society in which it is exercised. It is difficult to imagine a society in which there is absolute freedom of expression. It would be a society where defamation, racism, and insults of all kinds would be permitted. The freedom of expression is limited by defamation laws and laws against racism and insults against ethnic groups. Exactly where the boundary lies is renegotiated every time a new case is brought before the courts.
Just how difficult the issue of freedom of expression is was demonstrated in Norway last fall, during a major public debate about the Austrian author Peter Handke. He had been awarded the Ibsen Prize for his dramatic works, and two organizations dedicated to human rights and freedom of expression publicly denounced him. The reason was his controversial position on the war in the Balkans. They argued that this made him an accomplice of fascists and nationalists, that he insulted the memory of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, and that honoring him would obstruct the peace process in the Balkans. Today, the very same organizations are describing the terrorist attack against the satirical magazine in Paris as the greatest attack on freedom of expression in Europe in modern times, which few of us will disagree with. It is a glaring example of how easy it is to accept extreme statements when they are not directed at oneself, and how difficult it is to accept extreme expressions when they are, and which are felt to be offensive, insulting, immoral, evil.
The core of the problem surrounding freedom of expression generally, and the Paris massacre specifically, has to do with what I call the “We.” It is within the We that morality is established and enforced; it is the We that determines what can and cannot be said; it is the We that erects the invisible wall, felt by each and every one of us when the boundary is transgressed and the consequences, which are social by their very nature, become apparent. When the offices of the Paris magazine were attacked and the twelve people who were working there were killed, the act was carried out by men who stood on the outside of this We, and who didn’t identify with it. And when you don’t identify with the We, when you don’t feel that you are a part of its community, then its morals and ideals do not apply to you. If you are outside the identity of the greater community, then you establish your own, in this case that of radical Islam. When this in turn threatens the greater collective identity, which in Europe since fairly ancient times has primarily had a national character, then people tend to close ranks around national feeling, which is also radicalized, as we see happening in most European countries today, where nationalist movements everywhere are gaining strength rapidly. Both forms of radicalization center on and are fed by the simple notions of “We” and “They.”
Alienation, poverty, and social exclusion are problems of a kind that freedom of expression is unable to address. They are political issues, the problem of advancing and including a lost generation requires practical solutions. What does concern the freedom of expression, however, is the question of identity. And this, I think, is where the value of transgression becomes relevant. It is here that they derive their meaning and significance, those statements that oppose the consensus of the We, that go against the values and established opinions of the community. A morality which presupposes an Everyone, which presupposes a We, is dangerous, perhaps even the most dangerous thing of all, because to commit oneself to everyone is to commit to an abstraction, something which exists only in language or in the conceptual world, but not in reality, where human beings only exist singly. Every time a writer refuses to shy away when he or she runs up against the invisible wall, but instead overcomes internal and external resistance, then both the one and the many become visible, the boundaries are exposed, and their element of arbitrariness become apparent. Only then can the We, its morality and values, be renegotiated, and another identity become possible.
Translated from Norwegian by Ingvild Burke
Edited for this website by Heidi Mitchell
Photo courtesy of PEN International