With Twitter deciding, this weekend, to ban Donald Trump permanently from its platform, and Amazon pulling support for Parler, the so-called ‘free speech’ social network, the issue of online speech and its limits has reached a crisis point.
The dangers posed by the sheer reach and power of Trump’s online speech were predicted by many, including our PEN member for today, Margaret Atwood. She admitted in 2018 that there were horrifying similarities between the fictional state of Gilead in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale and Trump’s Presidency: ‘We’re not living in Gilead, but there are Gilead-like symptoms going on’.
But the issue of online censorship is complex. For some, the decision by social media companies to censor Trump’s words has come far too late. Others, including Angela Merkel, who clearly condemned the violent attack on the Capitol last week, have nevertheless questioned the fact that it is social media companies who are deciding on the limits to expression.
Not even Atwood could have predicted that, along with her fictional handmaid’s costumes becoming a global symbol for feminist pro-choice demonstrators they have also, during the COVID pandemic, been appropriated by Trump-supporting, far-right protestors at anti-quarantine rallies.
But it has also been a feature of recent history that the right to free speech itself has become politicised and weaponised by the extreme right, appealed to as a so-called ‘American’ or ‘Western’ value connected to constitutional history, and defined against anti-Western cultures and progressive liberal values.
What are the implications for novelists and poets, who have long defended the rights of writers to free speech? How can free speech be reclaimed as a progressive value?
When Atwood first started work for Canadian PEN in the early 1980s the organisation, as she wrily described it, consisted of ‘no money and some postage stamps and dining room tables.’
A pivotal member since those modest early days when PEN Canada had recently moved from Montreal to its new home in Toronto, Atwood has been very active in both PEN USA and PEN Canada. She now serves as a PEN International Vice President whilst retaining her membership of both Centres.
As the award-winning author of thirty works of fiction, poetry and critical essays, and one of the most important writers of the last sixty years, she has consistently used her global voice in PEN to represent and publicise the plight of persecuted, imprisoned and censored writers. As she put it, she acts as ‘a stand-in for the thousands of people around the world who speak and act against [human rights] abuses’.
The policing of language and behavior, as well as the solidarity and pleasures ignited by the free use of language, are central to many of her novels, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and The Testaments (2019). Campaigning for free expression has also been an integral part of Atwood’s life. She won PEN’s Pinter Prize in 2016 in recognition of her work defending writer’s rights. On accepting the award, she nominated Ahmedu Rashid Chowdhury for the international prize, after the publisher from Bangladesh survived a machete and gun attack by Islamic extremists.
The Salman Rushdie The Satanic Verses affair in 1989 was a turning-point for literary free speech debates, and it was significant for Atwood. She put her name to the PEN Rushdie petition which was signed by writers from all over the world. The letter was circulated widely to global newspapers, was presented to the United Nations and sent to Iranian representatives. She also addressed the specific challenges faced by Canadians, joining a campaign to defend the ‘lives and property of Canadian booksellers, Canadian publishers, and Canadian readers’ threatened because of Ayatolleh Khomeini’s ‘appalling incitement to murder Salman Rushdie’. This was designed for submission to the Prime Minister of Canada but also to garner press attention worldwide.
Since then she has served as a figurehead for Canadian PEN and PEN America, spearheading action for writers in prison all over the world and using her global fame to raise issues and funds. She even performed a duet with fellow writer Robertson Davies at the 1990 PEN Canada Benefit!
She is a very active International Vice President. She continues to write to Writers in Prison around the world, often making her correspondence public in order to draw attention to key causes. In 2016, in her letter to the Turkish author Asli Erdroğan, she wrote that ‘You are not alone: you have the entire PEN community of writers from around the world fighting for your freedom.’ She was a prominent signatory to the 2017 ‘Make Space Campaign’, which highlighted the position of writers displaced through racism and xenophobia, and sought to challenge hostility to refugees and asylum seekers.
Most recently, she wrote, with J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie 150 others, a defence of free expression which raised anxieties that it was ‘daily becoming more constricted’ as ‘a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favour of ideological conformity.’
This intervention proved controversial, with some arguing that it failed to acknowledge the structural inequalities that allow free speech to some, and denies it to others. The furore it caused reveals the increased politicization of disagreements about free speech. It seems likely that Atwood, a life-long free speech advocate, will continue to be at the centre of these debates around what may be said and written and will continue her fierce defence of writers’ rights around the world.