It feels as if we’re at a critical moment regarding discussion of free expression in the UK and the US. #cancelculture has been trending on Twitter; a letter signed by major literary figures warns of ‘rising censoriousness’; individuals are being stripped of titles and posts. With so much commotion it can be difficult to see the big picture – what are the key threats to freedom of expression, and how are they being imposed?
I was honoured to take up the helm of English PEN last summer, an organisation I have long admired for its deep commitment to free expression, literary quality, and the intersection between freedom of expression and other human rights. Juggling those three different elements can be challenging, and the challenge is all the greater with the debate being played out on, and amplified by, social media. This all too often irons out complexity, reducing it to a battle of opposing certainties, when many of the issues being raised both deserve and require the time and space for specific, engaged and nuanced discussion. A space for thoughtful reflection on positions, on power, and on historic and current inequalities.
At English PEN, we're proud of our 100-year history of calling out injustice and the abuse of power and we continue to fight every day for the freedom to write and the freedom to read. We support the right to hold and express strong views, provided that such expression does not undermine the internationally recognised human rights of others, nor engender the threat or use of violence. We also understand that to criticise is not to censor. Freedom of expression does not guarantee the right to a platform, and does not equate to freedom from consequences.
There are many examples of serious cases of concern, both current and in the PEN archives, in which such consequences have been undeserved, unconscionable, illegal, violating freedoms or vastly disproportionate. These cases are central to many of our campaigns. There are also examples of where responses can be seen as legitimate, and cannot simply be excoriated as #cancelculture.
Assessment of responses depends on the context, on what has been said, on the power structures involved, and the response to the criticism received. These responses in turn can be criticised – this is part of the power of free speech. The use of ill-defined terms such as 'cancel culture' and 'no platforming' has resulted in a situation where the distinction between legitimate criticism and online harassment has been blurred and undermined. Frequently those at the receiving end of online harassment are women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ individuals.
The world is undergoing a shift in opening up the spaces for this criticism to take place. Never before have so many voices been able to be present, to be actively involved in these debates. At English PEN we recognise that pervasive structural inequality remains a key barrier to free expression – any discussion of censorship that does not reflect on the power structures involved will never provide the whole picture. These structural inequalities are present across society in the UK and the literary and publishing sector has much work to do, as demonstrated by the recent academic report on ‘Rethinking ‘Diversity’ in Publishing’, published in partnership with Spread the Word, Goldsmiths and The Bookseller, with funding from AHRC.
English PEN champions equity of opportunity for all readers and writers. In particular, we seek to advance the full exercise of the right to freedom of expression in all communities - this concept underpins all of the work that we do. I am proud of our track record in platforming voices that have been underrepresented in the UK literary sector through our events and translation programmes and via our online magazine PEN Transmissions. We know this is an ongoing project, and it is one that we are committed to.
English PEN was founded in 1921 in the belief that creating the space to meet and speak to one another is vital. In the words of Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, English PEN’s founder, ‘out of social intercourse comes understanding’. From this idea came the growth of the international PEN movement, now present in over 100 countries. All PEN centres are guided by the PEN Charter – the principles of which were originally laid down in 1927 and updated in 1948. The PEN Charter envisions ‘one humanity living in peace and equality in one world’. It calls on members to use their influence to foster good understanding and mutual respect and to dispel all hatreds.
Freedom of expression can include statements that annoy, offend, shock, disturb, and cause discomfort. Freedom of expression also enables the demand for other human rights to be respected. We will continue to work through our centenary year and beyond to open up the space for nuanced discussion around freedom of expression and its intersection with other human rights. We are a membership organisation, and our members form our backbone. We would welcome you to join us, and to join in these vital debates on expression, power, justice and equality.
Daniel Gorman is the director of English PEN.