In the second half of her interview with Professor Peter McDonald, PEN South Africa President Margie Orford discusses the limits of free expression, violence against women and why the PEN Charter is largely unchanged to this day…
For Margie Orford freedom of expression can be a very complex balance. Whilst describing the fourth article of the PEN Charter, which defends free expression and the ‘free transmission of ideas’, as the most important to her, Orford is very aware of the exploitation of these ideas in the world outside PEN.
She is very proud of PEN and South African PEN’s record and recent campaigns around free expression in South Africa.
In particular PEN’s activism challenging South Africa’s “Secrecy Bill”:‘[A]t the time I thought what can we do a little organisation of scribblers – that bill has never been passed.
‘It was part of a sustained and collected action of people with a lot of activism, there were people with more specialist organisations like us doing the kind of talking and writing stuff around it.’
‘It’s through that collective action and its through what we did, and it’s a collaboration between PEN America, PEN South Africa and PEN International.’
Yet she knows only too well that with speech comes responsibility.
She said: ‘What is harm? Yes, you have the right to free expression, how does one measure insult and hurt, within that? What is the purpose of it?’
In particular, she sees free speech used as something to attack women, in some circles: ‘The issues were a bit blurred until we have seen what’s happened in the U.S. with people like that Milo Yiannopoulos…these very far right [people]. [This is] what a lot of men on the internet have used to troll women or minorities, you know, they use the claim to free speech for unrestrained insult.’
For Orford: ‘That idea of self-restraint, which is different to self-censorship, that’s a very dangerous and pernicious thing – where you self-censor because of fear of attack or for a number of reasons, fear of ostracism, whatever.
‘But the idea of restraint is what creates what Timothy Garton Ash calls that idea of robust civility, you can behave with good manners.’
She admits that with PEN ‘the criteria that I’ve set for myself is that maximum of free speech is desirable’ but she is only too aware of the limits of this approach.
Recently, her feminism has led her to try – with President Jennifer Clement – to embed some recognition of gender inequality into the PEN Charter.
This was, as she describes, ‘based on the thinking that violence against women is an extreme form of censorship.
‘It’s systemic, it happens, you know, there’s a kind of spectrum of it that happens from trolling on the internet to the murder of Jo Cox the MP, for instance.
‘I would read into that the women who leave their houses and can never go to school’.
For her all of these processes are linked.
‘And Jennifer’s from Mexico I’m from South Africa – and both of us have dealt for years with violence against women and violence against women as a form of censorship.’
Unfortunately, it proved far more complex to get the legislation through but she and Clement will try again, this time with a Women’s Manifesto later this year.
Listen to the second half of our interview to hear Margie discuss PEN South Africa’s successes, the Women’s Manifesto and her desire to create a space where literature can flourish.