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Writers react to the US Election: Freedom of Expression Under Threat

Friday 11 November 2016 - 6:01pm

PEN International - the global association of writers - is committed to using what influence we have to promote good understanding and mutual respect between nations and to do our utmost to dispel race, class, and national hatreds, and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in one world.

PEN considers that freedom of expression is necessary to advance the world towards a more highly organised political and economic order, that freedom of expression renders free criticism of governments, administrations and institutions imperative. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood and distortion of facts for political and personal ends.

As an organisation that has - for nearly one hundred years – raised and elevated the voices of writers around the world, PEN has noted over the course of the last few months - and particularly over the last few weeks around the elections in the United States of America - how many storytellers, poets, journalists, and writers of all kinds, have been using their words to reflect on the responsibilities of leadership, the impact of language, and the power words have to include or marginalise, promote peace or stir division.

Below are a series of reflections from writers, who have written statements or shared their thoughts with us this week. We look forward to many more discussions in the coming days and months around how the words we choose to use in the stories, newspaper reports, and speeches we create, have the power to shape and change our communities, identities, and freedoms.

The Executive Director of PEN America, Suzanne Nossel, yesterday wrote:

‘PEN America stands ready to play our essential role of defending free expression, elevating marginalized voices, and fostering dialogue across boundaries here at home and around the world. Our M Word programs highlighting Muslim-American writers, our landmark work on campus diversity and free speech, the PEN World Voices Festival, our advocacy to curb surveillance and defend whistle blowers, and much more will be imbued with even higher urgency going forward.’

Statements and reflections from writers around the world:

‘We cannot measure contempt and hatred with instruments and science so it is easy for some to think that Mr. Donald Trump’s words were only words. I know that words do measure a person. Today freedom of expression is in peril in the Land of the Free.’

Jennifer Clement, Writer and President of PEN International

‘When the cruel realities of the world project light onto our personal worlds, the shadows on the walls make changing shapes and we try to read them. Today, so close to the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya; having seen how, in the past three months, Turkey has become the biggest jail for writers and journalists in the world; in the United Kingdom, a week after judges of the High Court were described on the front pages of pro Brexit tabloid newspapers as “enemies of the people”; and confronted by the election in the United States of America of  Donald Trump, a president elect  who embodies post-truth politics; today we are outraged and we say that one of the first missions of writers is reclaiming truth in times of propaganda.”

Carles Torner, Poet & Executive Director of PEN International

‘Rule #1: Believe the autocrat. He means what he says. Whenever you find yourself thinking, or hear others claiming, that he is exaggerating, that is our innate tendency to reach for a rationalization. This will happen often: humans seem to have evolved to practice denial when confronted publicly with the unacceptable. Back in the 1930s, The New York Times assured its readers that Hitler’s anti-Semitism was all posture.’

Masha Gessen, Writer & member of the board of PEN America Extracted from her article of 11/11/16 in the New York Review of Books

‘Is there something wrong with democracy? This year we in Britain have voted to leave an organization that has sustained peace and prosperity during most of our lifetimes, and the people of the USA have elected a moral and intellectual savage as their president. Is the process failing somehow? Why these terrible, destructive, utterly stupid choices?’

Phillip Pullman, Author Extracted from his article in The Bookseller

‘I am also thinking about the survivors of sexual violence who contacted me during the campaign to tell me how triggering and deeply upsetting they found Trump’s behaviour and words to be.  I don’t know how they must be feeling today; facing into another four years of seeing his face in newspapers and magazines and on the TV when they know what he’s capable of.  When they know that the women who spoke out about him will more than likely never see justice that yet another perpetrator will never have to suffer any repercussions.  This is a story that these women know all too well.’

Louise O’Neill, Writer Extracted from this article in the Irish Times

If you are a writer and would like to get in touch with your thoughts on recent world events, please contact