What in God’s Name is the Head of PEN Talking About?

I find this statement in a New York Times oped, coming from Suzanne Nossel, the head of PEN America, to be absolutely stunning:

SOME of the most potent threats to free speech these days come not from our government or corporations, but from our citizenry.

Anyone who can write a sentence like this simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Which is fine, but not fine when the person is the head of an organization dedicated to freedom of expression.

By “our citizenry,” Nossel is referring to the recent round of free speech wars on college campuses. Now when these issues of free speech arise on campus, you usually see an explosion of conversation about it: on the campus itself, and in the media. Far from dampening down discussion, the controversy over free speech on campus actually ignites discussion. Everyone has an opinion, everyone voices it.

And while I wouldn’t diminish the challenges to free speech that these controversies pose, the notion that that they are far more common and threatening than what governments or corporations do is risible. Though given that Nossel is a former State Department flak, perhaps understandable. She is after all someone who has said:

To advance from a nuanced dissent to a compelling vision, progressive policymakers should turn to the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism…should offer assertive leadership — diplomatic, economic, and not least, military — to advance a broad array of goals.

When there are not just threats but actual abridgments of speech at the workplace—Nossel says “corporations,” referring I guess to firms’ financial lock on the political process, but as I’ve argued many times, it’s in their capacity as employers that firms really do damage to free speech—there is no such explosion as there are on college campuses. Partially because people like Nossel and the media are completely uninterested in the topic, even when the workplace in question is a university: if Nossel wrote an oped in the New York Times when Columbia prohibited its workers from speaking Spanish, I must have missed it.

But more important, there’s no explosion because abridgments of speech at work are so lethally effective. Workers are silenced, that is the end of the story. We never hear about it.

At one point in her oped Nossel does give a nod to the status of speech in the workplace. Here’s what she says:

Who would trade their [universities’ and colleges’] free-range spirit for the dreary sameness of a corporate office, with its federally sanctioned posters on what constitutes unlawful discrimination?

That’s where Nossel sees the threat to freedom of speech at work: in the “dreary sameness” roused by government efforts to inform workers of their rights against discrimination. There’s a suspicion on the left that freedom of speech is little more than a rationalization for racism or indifference to racism. I try to fight that suspicion all the time. But when the head of PEN America writes sentences like these, it makes that job infinitely harder.

Whatever one thinks about the current controversy over free speech at Yale and the University of Missouri, if the head of PEN America is going to leverage her pen on behalf of freedom of speech on the pages of the New York Times, she would well do to consider where the real threats to such speech lie.


  1. Susan Davis November 12, 2015 at 10:10 am | #

    Good question and thanks for asking. That NYT op ed is…unsummarizable.

  2. Mark Scott November 12, 2015 at 10:19 am | #

    It isn’t necessary to analyze someone’s logic to know whether he or she is worth paying attention to—not at first, anyway. You can just delete their adjectives and see what remains:

    “To advance from a nuanced dissent to a compelling vision, progressive policymakers should turn to the great mainstay of twentieth-century U.S. foreign policy: liberal internationalism…should offer assertive leadership — diplomatic, economic, and not least, military — to advance a broad array of goals.”

    Freed of adjectives, the passage runs:

    To advance from a dissent to a vision, policymakers should turn to the mainstay of U.S. foreign policy: internationalism…should offer leadership to advance an array of goals.

    This person trades in labels. She has platitudes. She has no ideas.

  3. Roquentin November 12, 2015 at 1:19 pm | #

    I cringe reading stories like this. I’ve said it before, but hearing about these controversies/scandals makes any nostalgia I had for university life evaporate. All of these scandals and bickering make me tired. I definitely support the Missouri students who forced the president to resign, but the Yale thing in particular sounds to me like a tempest in a teacup. A harmless email telling kids to do something they should know better than to do in the first place? Why does anyone care? I haven’t paid much attention to either story, though.

    I can say racist/sexist speech and actions are regulated heavily in the workplace, primarily for legal reasons. It’s one of the easiest ways to get fired. If anything, in the business world what is and isn’t politically correct to say is enforced more strictly, at least in my experience in New York. This idea that corporations are somehow more tolerant of that behavior among their employees is ludicrous, regardless of how you feel about the issue.

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