What Is Courage?
I read a tweet yesterday that kind of broke my heart a little. Someone I know and like said they did not believe in boycotts because they had “fought too hard to be included.” The person in question was referring to the PEN controversy. My own feelings about the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and therefore my reasons for taking a side on this issue, are covered elsewhere.
But I’ve been thinking about that statement since. What does it mean to “be included?” By whom? To what purpose, and to what end?
It made me think about the fight itself – for whom and what do we fight? When we fight for inclusion, is it just for ourselves? I, Ru Freeman, would like to “be included?” Where? At the PEN gala? I have been. I’ve been one of those table hosts, and I enjoyed it. Then, as on many other occasions, I’ve thought about where I came from, who I am, how much I enjoy the glamor and jazz of being in such places, but also about the immense loneliness I feel at such moments. The public person, the representative of my kind – South Asian, of colour, the international, the woman, the Sri Lankan – puts on both the ball gown and the star performance. But that same person understands that at all times I am but the face of all those other identities, and all the other people who look like me or talk like me or think like me or share my various parts and orientations. What I do does not impact me alone. And I am far too old and far too wise to believe that the fame of a NY minute is a rule meant only for other people. I’m far too old not to know that when the lights dim, I walk home as myself, a woman of many identities, and many complexities, not Ru Freeman the Table Host at the PEN Gala, circa. 2013.
Knowing these things, I have often advised people who have asked, that in the end what you are left with – what anybody is left with – is their integrity. The table at which I sat included some of New York’s finest philanthropists; I knew their work thanks to my own work in development and fundraising with major donors. The reward for their gift to PEN was being consumed as we talked, and I, good soldier that I am, changed seats through the various courses to make sure that I had a chance to make a pesonal connection with each one, to express – through some combination of charm and intelligence – that I valued their support on behalf of PEN. But I am not only the good soldier. And the glitz of the corporate presentation that year grated on my nerves. (There is a reason why I love the American Friends Service Committee – nobody there looks like they’re rolling out a multi-million dollar initiative for Nike, when they are raising money to help the poor in the most remote parts of Afghanistan). But that was not the place to express my small sentiment of dismay. It would have served no purpose. It could not have helped the people who were struggling under the weight of censorship across America or the world. It would have been a pointless and graceless gesture. And man, was I not enjoying my ballgown and my wine at my first black-tie gala?
But what would I have done if I had been asked to represent PEN during a ceremony that awarded a badge of courage to a group that denigrates most of the population of the world? Whose raison d’etre for being present at the gala was that they had persisted in ridiculing and taunting a marginalized and mostly misunderstood minority? Would this not have been the time to think about those other identities which I embody? If I had ever belonged to any group, of any size, which had been denied the respect and regard and rights accorded to everyone else, which had been brutalized and collectively dismissed at every turn, particularly in America, would not my conscience trouble me enough to stand with those who more closely embody the hardships I may have undergone? The answer would have been clear to me, forget the ballgown and the wine and the little table tents that tell the assembled all about myself and my literary achievements.
So what is belonging and inclusion? And in whose hands do we place the right to include us, and to stand in judgement about our merits?
I’ve been reading a lot of posts and interviews with the writers who chose to sign the letter of dissent – a letter of dissent is like the words penned by judges of the courts; it allows the majority ruling to go forward, but it articulates the reasons why the particular judge/s disagree. It has no teeth with regard to the particular ruling, but it informs the legal arguments yet to be made in other cases. In other words, as an organization like PEN ought to understand better than any other, a letter of dissent permits the freedom of speech and conscience. This particular letter of dissent expressed exactly that, and no more. The vilification of the six table hosts – and therefore the other signatories of whom I am one – permitted by PEN, and articulated in fact by some of PEN’s most recognized names, is the real blow to freedom of speech.
To claim that the award had nothing to do with the denigration of Muslims, while quoting Ayaan Hirsi Ali is like saying you aren’t racist but quoting Zimmerman.
What Ali said could have been said by anybody. That PEN chose to use her as a quotable human being at a gala where they have sworn they were making an award that has nothing to do with Islamaphobia, is nothing short of not just a bucket, but an entire dry oil well full of bovine excrement.
To return to this idea that crawling through the needle to be “included” requires the setting aside of ones conscience, or must silence the voice one possesses and can use to speak for the voiceless and the “unincluded” – a condition with which the freshly “included” must surely be familiar – I quote the writer Conner Habib: “I am not one of the widely celebrated writers on the list. I, like many of the 204 signatories, am not a household name. I am not wealthy or luxuriously free to sign petitions.” In other words, some writers choose to do what it is not easy to do because they value the tenor of our community more than they value the fleeting moment of “inclusion.”
Habib goes on to make several excellent points in his post about his decision to sign the letter of dissent or, as he puts it, more accurately, disassociation. As does Amitava Kumar, another writer who knows of what he speaks, in this conversation during The Takeaway with John Hockenberry.
Amitava takes on both the matter of PEN mobilizing its surrogates to attack the writers who wish to disassociate themselves from this award, and the matter of choosing to celebrate Charlie Hebdo while ignoring the murder, say, of Pakistani activist, Sabeen Mahmud, among other things. And he asks this question: “Does it take courage to stand up at a glittery gala in NYC and toast Charlie Hebdo? I don’t think it does. So what does it take more courage to stand up for today?”
At the end of the day, I look at the list of (thus far) 204 PEN members who had the courage to add their names to the letter of dissent and I realize how much regard I have for each of them. It is nice to look around and see that some people still choose the walk-on-part in the war over the lead role in a cage.