The PEN Pod: Reckoning with “the Big Lie” 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 how the media should contend with lies and false conspiracy theories about the election, Amnesty International’s recent decision to strip Alexei Navalny of his “prisoner of conscience” status, and the controversy regarding Slate’s suspension of journalist Mike Pesca. Check out the full episode below (our interview with Suzanne begins at the 10:30 mark).
I want to talk to you about the “Big Lie”—the false conspiracy theory that the November election was somehow rigged—which of course we know is not true, but we’re still seeing members of Congress echo this lie on Sunday shows, and this week, in the halls of Congress. It’s particularly galling on Capitol Hill, where those very lies led to a violent insurrection. Some have proposed that Sunday shows and TV bookers shouldn’t book members of Congress who spread this kind of nonsense. Do you agree?
Yeah, it’s that lie, and then it’s also the lie about what the Capitol insurrection was. We saw a resurrection this week of the completely discredited claims that it was antifa or paid actors—instead of Trump’s supporters—who stormed the capital. What’s alarming is, after a brief window where it seemed as if these false claims were vanquished in the discourse and Joe Biden was elected and reality was setting in, is the fact that they’re rearing their heads again, which is disturbing and seems to derive from this political calculus that Trump’s potency and his grip on this core group of Republican voters is so unshakeable that members of Congress have to buy into an alternate universe in order to survive politically. I think it’s an illustration of the depths to which he led us in terms of the effect misinformation has on the segment of our population. For us at PEN America, having done so much work on disinformation, defense, and media literacy, any notion that the Biden era would inaugurate a post-disinformation period is just false. We must continue, and we have an enormous amount of work to do.
I don’t see a problem with making editorial decisions regarding people who subscribe to and promulgate conspiracy theories—let’s face it, we have a couple of members of Congress who I think are perhaps truly delusional and maybe actually believe this stuff. But then we have a core of others who either have admitted that they see the truth for what it is, or have at times been forthright about what actually happened, in terms of the outcome of the election, or the reality of the Capitol, and then have sort of turned about in the face of political winds that blow in the other direction. That kind of disingenuousness is a valid reason to decide that somebody is not a credible interlocutor to opine on, for example, a Sunday show or on an op-ed page.
“What’s alarming is, after a brief window where it seemed as if these false claims were vanquished in the discourse and Joe Biden was elected and reality was setting in, is the fact that they’re rearing their heads again, which is disturbing and seems to derive from this political calculus that Trump’s potency and his grip on this core group of Republican voters is so unshakeable that members of Congress have to buy into an alternate universe in order to survive politically. I think it’s an illustration of the depths to which he led us in terms of the effect misinformation has on the segment of our population.”
Now I want to turn briefly to matters outside of the United States. This week, it was revealed that Amnesty International will no longer consider Russian dissident Alexei Navalny a prisoner of conscience, though the organization will still petition for his freedom. That decision apparently was based on past statements Navalny had made that were xenophobic, but there’s a wrinkle here: it seems that the pressure campaign on Amnesty to take away that designation was led by what appears to be a coordinated campaign out of Russia. I’m wondering, did Amnesty just cave, and what does this say about these kinds of pressure campaigns coming from Russia?
I thought this was a really strange decision on Amnesty’s part to decide that these past statements—as offensive and objectionable as they were, and I don’t dispute that—negate Navalny’s status as a prisoner of conscience. I have actually felt for a long time the idea that individual writers or human rights defenders—on whose behalf we advocate when they are persecuted, imperiled, prosecuted, jailed, tortured—I don’t think we need to make a valid judgment about the totality of their character, to decide we’re only going to stand with those who have been sterling in all aspects of their bearing, who are without prejudice or pettiness or hatefulness. I think we’re standing with them because their rights are being abused and their voices are being silenced, and that we should look at them as we’d look at anybody else. They contain multitudes; they’re complicated people; they may be good or bad. Some may have the heroism of Nelson Mandela; others may be as utterly disappointing as Aung San Suu Kyi turned out to be. I think the idea of rendering that value judgment before elevating somebody as worthy of a campaign for their freedom is a mistake.
It does play into exactly what you cited, which is the ability of political antagonists or authoritarian governments to undermine such campaigns by discrediting the individual, whether it’s about these xenophobic comments, or, in other cases, they’ve brought up charges of pornography against dissident writers. They’ll look for anything they can to tar the person’s record, discredit them, and undermine the role of the international community to advocate on their behalf. This is most surprising on Amnesty’s part, especially because they acknowledge that there was this concerted campaign that was waged, and that they were making the move in response to that. I hope they reverse this decision and that going forward, they advocate for people because of the merits of their case, without trying to do a wholesale character assessment.
“I think we’re standing with them because their rights are being abused and their voices are being silenced, and that we should look at them as we’d look at anybody else. They contain multitudes; they’re complicated people; they may be good or bad. Some may have the heroism of Nelson Mandela; others may be as utterly disappointing as Aung San Suu Kyi turned out to be. I think the idea of rendering that value judgment before elevating somebody as worthy of a campaign for their freedom is a mistake.”
Let’s conclude here in a bit on some issues that have been popping up in the media. This week, Slate announced that it indefinitely suspended journalist Mike Pesca, who hosted their daily podcast. That came after Pesca apparently was defending the use of a racist slur by white people, at least in certain contexts. Of course, this comes on the heels of the resignation of The New York Times’s journalist Donald McNeil over similar issues. On the one hand, is this cancel culture, or on the other, is this a case of privileged white reporters who shouldn’t be uttering these slurs in the first place?
I think it’s a bit of both. I recognized this about two years ago, after the case of Jeff Stone, a first amendment professor at the University of Chicago, a very renowned, beloved professor, who used the N-word in a class. He had done so for many years, teaching a lesson on the doctrine of fighting words, and the reaction this time around was intense. There were calls for him to be disciplined, and students were up in arms and outraged. I think he meant well. He met with students, he heard them out, and he came to a voluntary decision that he wasn’t going to use the word anymore because it had this hurtful impact on people. At the time, I felt there were all these other people who did not recognize what used to be known as the use-mention distinction—the use of a racial slur, and the mention of the word, perhaps in a historical or literary context or quoting somebody else. That distinction, I think, has broken down in many people’s minds, and they hear the word the same way, whether it’s being used or mentioned.
We know that the history of the N-word is singular in our country in terms of its velocity and potency as a term of denigration. I think the decision that it’s just better not to use it regardless—of course as a slur, but even as a mention—is a valid and grounded one. What I recognized was that people didn’t realize how the mores had evolved. I’m not even sure the mores exactly evolved, because to the degree that, for example, in Jeff Stone’s law school class 15 years ago, people might not have objected. Maybe that was just because they didn’t feel empowered to object, and they were upset that he was mentioning the word, but they felt not in a position to register that concern. And now they’re in a position to register that concern, and I think all of us should be aware of that concern. In the case of the N-word, you do have the euphemism that you can use as an alternative, to get your point across. I think it’s unfortunate that this message hasn’t gotten out more widely, more quickly.
I think there is an obligation, as I write in my book, Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, that when you have a platform, you have a duty of care to stay on top of some of these debates and think about the words that you’re using. At the same time, I don’t believe that people should be punished for a mention, absent any indication of either racist intent, or even actual negligence about the use of the word. I think if there’s a case where someone is put on notice of the impact that the mention of the word has, and they choose to go ahead and mention it anyway, I think that is truly questionable, but in some of these instances, at least that doesn’t appear to be the case. I certainly do think discussions about the potency of this word, and whether there’s ever an appropriate context in which to mention the word, should not be off-limits. It’s a contentious set of issues to be sure. There are important sensibilities that absolutely need to be taken into account. It’s ultimately better that this is being brought out into the open so that people understand where the fault lines are and connect and speak accordingly.