The PEN Pod: On the Release of Loujain Al-Hathloul and Conscientiousness with Language with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we discussed the resignation of a New York Times reporter, the story of the impeachment, and the release of Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 14:12 mark).
I want to start with some big, exciting news. This week, Saudi officials released Loujain Al-Hathloul. She was our 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree alongside two other Saudi women’s rights activists who had been detained for many years on ludicrous charges. I wonder how you’re reflecting on her release, what it means for advocates worldwide, and whether it gives you hope for writers and intellectuals who are still locked away.
It’s a delight to talk about this because I would say the most rewarding aspect of my work—and all of our work at PEN—are these moments, where there are people, like Loujain, who we get to know in absentia. We get to know their families and their stories, we follow every twist and turn of their legal battles—in her case, being tortured in prison—fits and starts of a trial that was shrouded in secrecy, and just grave fear of what would become of her: this very young, vibrant woman in her early thirties. And so, we’ve sort of lived with her, in that way, for the last couple of years. And then the word that this might happen—which we had heard earlier in the week—and then finally seeing a new photo of her in a new setting, and the joyous words of her sister, Lina, who was with us when we presented the award, and with whom we’ve worked so closely with on this case over the years. It’s just one of those inspirational moments. My fervent hope is that we eventually get to meet Loujain, whether it’s in Saudi Arabia or here in the U.S. It’s a very positive step.
I think it reflects, also, perhaps a changing political dynamic with the Biden administration—which seems to be ready to put far more emphasis on the cases of writers and dissidents around the world, and use their leverage to make it clear to regimes like Saudi Arabia that if they want to have good relations with Washington, this is going to be important. An important element will be how they treat their own people, their critics, and those who challenge power. In Loujain’s case, at the forefront of her advocacy was this battle—that seems absurd to an American—to afford women the right to drive, which seems so basic and elemental, and yet, she gave up her freedom for nearly three years in service of that cause. And of course, Saudi Arabia has loosened restrictions on women’s driving, but they would never have acknowledged that this was a movement catalyzed by people like Loujain. They have no recognition for the role of civil society and human rights advocates as a force for change.
“We’re very aware that [Loujain Al-Hathloul is] not entirely free. . . Realistically speaking, for someone like her, it remains extremely dangerous to speak and write freely—you’re constantly under threat, they know where you are; they know who you are; if you cross them again, you could get arrested again. The dynamic, at that point, between Washington and Riyadh, may be different. So she’s going to live with those constraints. . . So even though she’s physically free, it’s not clear that her voice will really be free.”
We’re very aware that she’s not entirely free. She’s definitely under travel restrictions for the next five years. Realistically speaking, for someone like her, it remains extremely dangerous to speak and write freely—you’re constantly under threat, they know where you are; they know who you are; if you cross them again, you could get arrested again. The dynamic, at that point, between Washington and Riyadh, may be different. So she’s going to live with those constraints. We’ve seen many other writers and dissidents around the world who do. What’s so unfortunate is that we’re trying to liberate these people’s voices—the force of their writing, speaking, and interviews—to shape society. So even though she’s physically free, it’s not clear that her voice will really be free.
Yeah, it’s something we’ll be watching for over the coming days and months. I want to turn quickly back to the U.S. where about a week ago, a seasoned New York Times science reporter named Donald McNeil resigned from his position at the paper. It came after revelations that he had uttered a racial slur during a student trip in 2019. There was backlash within the newsroom itself. One hundred and fifty some staff members—even after it was explained that he had been disciplined and allowed to keep his job—appealed for a more thorough investigation. We came out pretty strongly last weekend, saying that we were concerned over this, that it could cast a chilling effect on free speech if the utterance of a word—such as the one he reportedly used—becomes the sole cause for someone to lose their job. This is not something that everyone agrees with—it’s something that we certainly took some criticism for on Twitter and elsewhere. Give us a sense of where we come down on this and why.
It’s not a new issue for us. In the course of our program on Campus Free Speech, we have seen a spate of incidents in which often a faculty member will—I think there is an important distinction to be made between using the slur as a form of invective to insult or denigrate someone else, and mentioning the slur in a course of conversation—mention the word, either quoting from literature, or in one case, it was a law school class where it was mentioned in the course of a lesson on fighting words. These professors have been accustomed to saying the word in this way—they’ve done it for years. And the reaction, in recent years, has changed. There have been many cases where there have been calls for discipline, and there has been discipline, and it takes these people by surprise. They have not woken up to the fact that the mores around this word, in any context, have really changed. And that idea of a “use/mention” distinction, it absolutely exists conceptually but it’s often not operative, in terms of the reaction that the word elicits.
For me, this case at The New York Times is particularly vivid because it brings up so many of the issues that we have analyzed in the course of our work and that I’ve written about in Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech For All. I thought, “This is such a confluence of the different principles that I talk about.” The first one is conscientiousness with language and the idea that someone actually is on notice and has an obligation to be aware of how words land, to think about their audience, and to watch the evolution of norms in terms of language and that obligation. I have a second chapter on the duty of care. The idea is that obligation is heightened when you’re in a position of authority—as New York Times reporters speaking to students, in this instance.
“I think it’s quite dangerous actually, to say that intent should be written out of the equation. I’m not sure, honestly, that we’re ready to live that way, that any of us really are going to be able to use our voice and engage in robust discussion if we know that we could be held culpable for how any of our words are interpreted, regardless of intent—because those moorings do shift, and they shift quickly in the age of social media. Yes, we have an obligation to keep up and to be attentive to what the sensitivities, the hot buttons, and red lines are, but that’s never going to be perfect.”
I think there were absolute failings—and we talk about this in the statement—on McNeil’s part. But at the same time, what was striking about this was The New York Times issued the announcement of McNeil’s departure, clearly under pressure, saying that intent doesn’t matter when it comes to an utterance like this. I have a third chapter for the book, about the importance of considering intent and context and evaluating speech. I think it’s quite dangerous actually, to say that intent should be written out of the equation. I’m not sure, honestly, that we’re ready to live that way, that any of us really are going to be able to use our voice and engage in robust discussion if we know that we could be held culpable for how any of our words are interpreted, regardless of intent—because those moorings do shift, and they shift quickly in the age of social media. Yes, we have an obligation to keep up and to be attentive to what the sensitivities, the hot buttons, and red lines are, but that’s never going to be perfect.
In this case, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether the punishment was for something much broader than the utterance of the single word—was it patterns of conduct? But the statement that the Times put out linked to Donald McNeil’s own apology, which was so specific—in minute detail, going through the circumstances of the singular utterance of the word—that it was impossible to interpret it as anything but the basis for his departure from the newspaper. If in fact there was something broader at foot—patterns of harassment or racist conduct—I think that’s something that needs to be put out there because otherwise, what stands is that a 40-year career ends on the utterance of a single word, even after an investigation determined there was no racist intent. That, based on all of our work about how to reconcile these thorny issues—of driving the imperative forward for a more equal, inclusive, antiracist society while sustaining robust protections for free speech—all of that seemed to be implicated, and that’s what prompted us to speak out.
“In the ensuing weeks, there’s really a question that has come up, because we’ve had one party, by and large—not with unanimity—downplaying, backpedaling, and calling into question things that even these members of Congress saw with their very eyes. So I think it is an important effort to set the historical record straight—the first draft of history, in a sense, is being recorded and recounted in this setting.”
Lastly, we’re wrapping up this first week of impeachment proceedings—the second round of them against now-former President Trump. There has been some pretty extraordinary video and audio that’s come out amid those proceedings—pictures that people just hadn’t seen before. We have seen in the last few weeks, especially members of the Republican Party—who had seemed like they were ready to hold the president accountable for his actions—stepping away from that. How do you think the revelations of this week—maybe not even how they might affect the end of the impeachment trial—but how do you think they will affect the way we tell the story of the Trump administration, and particularly the climax of the insurrection?
It’s an important, open question. I think it’s kind of a gamble, in a way. By holding this proceeding—walking through in meticulous detail, the horrific events of January 6 and what led up to them—the whole effort to thwart the outcome of the election; this does inflect the historical record and eche in our collective memory, an inaccurate version of events. I remember on that day, January 6, my reaction was, “This is a day that will live in infamy.” It seemed like such an outrageous attack on our institutions.
In the ensuing weeks, there’s really a question that has come up, because we’ve had one party, by and large—not with unanimity—downplaying, backpedaling, and calling into question things that even these members of Congress saw with their very eyes. So I think it is an important effort to set the historical record straight—the first draft of history, in a sense, is being recorded and recounted in this setting. And yet, obviously the risk is that if those in the room are not persuaded, we know what the numbers look like and that it appears very unlikely that the requisite majority for a vote for impeachment will manifest.
But even some movement toward recognizing these events for what they were might be significant in terms of shaping the longer-term historical memory, which is really extremely important. If you look around the world at places like the Soviet Union and now Russia, these moments where a collective judgment is being rendered about an aberrant chapter of history, how that goes down can have an incredibly potent effect on future political directions—whether these ideologies are dead or discredited, whether these personalities are lionized or vilified. So I think that’s what’s at stake here.