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

by Corey Robin on November 12, 2015

I find this statement in a New York Times oped, coming from Suzanne Nossel, the head of PEN America, 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 campus curbs on speech, if that is what they are, are far more common and threatening than what governments or corporations do is risible. Though given that Nossel is a former State Department higher-up, 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 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.



Art Deco 11.12.15 at 3:36 pm

What she’s talking about is the damage to the value of higher education as a public forum. Own it, Corey. It’s your fault.


AcademicLurker 11.12.15 at 3:49 pm

I’ll give you Yale, sort of, but are the protests at Missouri particularly concerned with free speech? I haven’t heard of anyone demanding 90’s style speech codes or the like. It seems more about administrative foot dragging in addressing straight up harassment (swastika’s drawn of dorm room doors & etc.) that even most libertarians would concede doesn’t fall under the umbrella of any sort of protected speech.

Regarding Nossel’s statement. I do notice, and maybe this is mostly an online phenomenon, that there is a crowd of younger self-styled progressives who seem to have embraced disdain for the notion of free speech as a value in itself, divorced from any particular context (such as racial slurs). I suppose mainly they’re just trolling, but I don’t look forward to dealing with these folks when they get older, unless they also do some growing up in the meantime.


Anarcissie 11.12.15 at 3:55 pm

This may be totally off-topic, or not: some of my swamp-dwelling yellow-dog activist associates have noted that whenever some kind of explicit action happens in the class war, race, gender, and related conflicts (‘p.c’) suddenly heat up and leftists are called to form the usual circular firing squads. The explicit class war action of the present is the release, at long last, of the grotesque text of the TPP which is supposedly going to be voted on, up or down, in less than three months. I don’t know if any strings were pulled or dogs were whistled, but there does seem to be a remarkable correlation. This is not the first such coincidence.

Now we see a ‘State Department higher-up’ apparently stirring the pot…. Oh, well, it’s just another silly conspiracy theory.


Mike Adamson 11.12.15 at 4:18 pm

In fairness, she did say SOME.


Dean C. Rowan 11.12.15 at 4:27 pm

She seems deeply confused. It’s time for Stanley Fish to chime in.


Marc 11.12.15 at 4:53 pm

We have a deadly effective tool for channeling easily induced outrage in the form of social media, and it really is developing into a serious issue for freedom of speech. A lot of online progressives also appear to be pretty deeply hostile to free speech as a concept: as if it’s somehow OK for social media pressure campaigns to get publicity-averse employers to fire people in a way that is magically different from having their employers do the same. Or that it’s OK to abuse people who write things that you disagree with, or that we should go with the most incendiary way of interpreting what others write.

This is in the process of backfiring in spectacular fashion in the US right now, as you might have predicted from drearily similar outbreaks of the same phenomenon earlier. I think that her central point stands – namely, that free speech is both a core liberal value and one that serves progressive activism well. I also view the intolerant strains of activism as thus both ethically dubious and as counterproductive tactically. Seriously – why would activists prefer to have their confrontation with reporters, as opposed to their activism on racism, be the main story?


BenK 11.12.15 at 4:55 pm

Coexistence in a corporation or commercial partnership is predicated upon common purpose. If speech reveals a difference in purpose or intent, or intentionally mars the fulfillment of the purpose, dissolving the partnership or exit from the corporation is frequently the appropriate response. As a result, free speech as such does not exist within that setting.


willf 11.12.15 at 5:17 pm

There’s a suspicion on the left that freedom of speech is little more than a rationalization for racism or indifference to racism.

There is? Who is voicing this suspicion?


Marc 11.12.15 at 5:23 pm

@7 This is now being extended to things that people say on social media outside of work. I don’t like this uncontrolled extension of speech inhibition, and having it enforced by external actors is not an improvement over having employers do it directly.


Chip Daniels 11.12.15 at 5:30 pm

I won’t overstate the case to say nothing ever changes, but every age and culture marks certain expressions as off limits, self-evidently taboo.

Its mostly that the boundaries change and evolve, that causes the consternation. An example would be the phrase “Fu@king Ni@@er”. There has never been a time in our culture which this phrase could be uttered in polite company. Most of history found the first word taboo, recent history has placed the second one in profane space. Should both words be taboo? Neither? One, or the other?

Again it would be blithe to suggest we ignore attempts to stifle speech, but waving the banner of Free Speech as some sort of universal artifact of nature that we can all discern and agree upon is really pernicious, since it suppresses alternative visions of what speech should or shouldn’t be permitted.


Jonathan Mayhew 11.12.15 at 6:21 pm

“Rather than a casualty of the drive to counter racism on campus, the defense of free speech is essential to it.”

I kind of agree with this sentiment. This editorial makes a lot of good points so I have a hard time mustering up indignation about it.


Marshall Peace 11.12.15 at 6:30 pm

… common purpose. If speech reveals a difference in purpose or intent …

It’s like one of those fish-eye lenses that let you see an individual hair on some particular fly while the rest of the swamp is just a rim shot.


Dean C. Rowan 11.12.15 at 6:48 pm

To the extent she makes good points, I wonder whether a NYT op-ed was required to make them. (No, I’m not restricting her exercise of free speech.) It’s the particular way in which she frames and makes them that’s so unsettling. In addition to the lede pointed out by Corey, there’s the silly comment about trading the free spirit of a university campus for a corporate office. Does she realize that a good number of students on a university campus are, precisely, hoping to graduate to a corporate office, to secure the dreary sameness of a regular paycheck? And this: “For champions of the marginalized to curb opposing speech denies them the moral standing to resist the university’s efforts to silence them.” No, it doesn’t. The example, the Missouri photographer, is an extreme case. It invites a charge of hypocrisy. But champions of the marginalized who work to get powerful opponents to STFU for two seconds in no way undermines their mission. It is the point of their mission!


Bluesmoke 11.12.15 at 7:24 pm

What is your objection to the NYT publishing this op Ed.


AN 11.12.15 at 9:24 pm

FYI this is not *exactly* a crazy view. I’d say it’s been on the table before.

ike other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society is itself the tyrant — society collectively over the separate individuals who compose it — its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to the acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandates; and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough; there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development and, if possible, prevent the formation of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence; and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs as protection against political despotism. — On Liberty, The Library of Liberal Arts edition, p.7.


Jonathan Mayhew 11.12.15 at 9:31 pm

Placement in the Times is never “required” in order to express one’s views, so the same could be said of any op-ed on any subject.


Dean C. Rowan 11.12.15 at 10:00 pm

I was needlessly overstating the case. What I meant was that the degree of goodness of her points doesn’t to my mind merit their publication in the NYT. Some op-eds, on the other hand, do make points that are good, perhaps remarkably so (unlike hers), and in ways (unlike hers) that exhibit clarity, rather than confusion, about the issues. Really, the line about “federally sanctioned posters” in the corporate workplace entirely misses the point.


Will G-R 11.12.15 at 10:55 pm

@7: But isn’t it the case that any form of coexistence whatsoever can be considered to depend on some form of common purpose, even forms of coexistence from which individuals have no readily viable escape route? The proverbial false shout of “fire!” in a crowded theater is intentionally marring the fulfillment of a common purpose of maintaining public order, advocacy of civil disobedience against a military draft is intentionally marring the fulfillment of a common purpose of waging war, dissenting against the proclamations of Comrade Stalin is intentionally marring the fulfillment of a common purpose of establishing socialism in one country, and so on and so on. By that standard of “free speech” in capitalist social relations, free speech can’t meaningfully be said to exist anywhere at all. (To add subordinate clauses re: the ease of dissolving particular forms of coexistence raises empirical questions that must also be raised WRT business relationships like employees considering whether to quit their job.)

Of course the sorts of (*gasp!*) Marxists for whom “free speech” was never a coherent concept to begin with could have explained all of this a long time ago.


Jake the antisoshul soshulist 11.12.15 at 11:31 pm

@BenK. Seriously? It is a job, not a religion. My purpose was to do the best job I could so I continue to get a paycheck. The purpose my employer saw for itself had no meaning to me. That being said, free speech in the workplace is sadly limited.
@Dean C Rowan. Considering that David Brooks and Ross Douthat have
op ed positions at the NYT, I don’t see that as something indicating any particular merit.


jccayford 11.12.15 at 11:51 pm

AN is exactly right, and provides a dead-on, insightful quotation from J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty.” The damage of a widely enforced social intolerance reaches deeper into a person than the merely external obstructions a government or corporation can put up. If you have lived through it, you know how personally demoralizing it is to have your best characteristics — your open mind, thoughtful commitment to truth, your compassion — used to make you a pariah.

This is the real heart of the debate over political correctness.


David Lewis 11.13.15 at 12:02 am

Ms. Noessel might thing about more serious things, I think. http://digbysblog.blogspot.com/2015/11/about-those-anti-free-speech-pc-kids.html But what the hippies are doing is always more dangerous.


chairman 11.13.15 at 12:19 am

One particularly insidious aspect of “PC,” especially in regards to social media outrage, is how often there starts up a campaign to inform the offender’s employer of the offense and try to get them fired. For people who are ostensibly leftists it is worrying to see them often so enthusiastic to let corporations use a person’s precarious employment as a tool to enforce conformity and good behavior.


geo 11.13.15 at 12:22 am

What in God’s name is Suzanne Nossel doing at the head of PEN? Couldn’t they find a poet, essayist, or novelist? Or even a journalist, historian, or philosopher? Why would they want an international lawyer and State Department functionary to represent America’s writers?


js. 11.13.15 at 12:33 am

What in God’s name is Suzanne Nossel doing at the head of PEN?

Thanks. That was my question too.


jfp 11.13.15 at 2:22 am

Having followed many of these recent arguments about political correctness, here especially, I have a perspective I’d like to add.
This country was founded, maintained, and continues to be based on a white supremacist patriarchy. College is really just about the only place where people, those fortunate enough to attend real college, will find a space, in their lives ever, where one can raise one’s voice and have it joined against said patriarchal white supremacy. And then, many of the rest of us feel uncomfortable or indignant because “speech,” which is quite often actually behavior, and we tell them they are doing it wrong, and shut up because they are being offensive to speech. I can’t agree with that, nor can I agree that the only other collection of communities where one can freely object, the Internet, should be told they are shrill and should shut up, too. Now, mind, chasing out someone who is making a record of your speech in a public place for really any reason but especially if they mean to report the event and comment on it should be entirely condemned, but reducing it to that is forest:trees.


kidneystones 11.13.15 at 8:35 am

In a community that routinely shuns, bans, and otherwise censors dissent (that’s CT) on ‘certain’ issues, you probably don’t regard similar censorship at universities as an issue for ‘real’ scholars, ie. those who subscribe to the holy, sacred, and inviolate truths of CT wisdom – such as ‘all Republicans are sociopaths.’

As difficult as it may be, I sincerely hope that some CT readers at least entertain for a moment that Ms. Nossel is making her statement out of a genuine concern that the dominant discourse, especially in the social sciences, is actually removing the free speech and thought rights of a significant subset of dissenting intellectuals. That’s fine on a blog like CT, but a really bad thing at an institution of higher learning. Bernie Sanders, btw, evidently got a very respectful hearing at Liberty University, both during his talk and during a Q & A: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R3qT4qMeLxU

I agree completely that the people I disagree with most deserve my closest attention and respect. Didn’t someone once say that if I don’t hear the arguments of those I disagree with first hand, not only do I not understand their arguments, I don’t even understand my own.

Let’s grant everyone the right to offend and be offensive! If the words and ideas are too hot to handle, stay out of the kitchen.


Colin 11.13.15 at 3:11 pm

I would imagine that college/university instructors around the US (the world? certainly too ambitious…) will be taking their cues from recent events and teaching the theory and history of free speech, perhaps with these specific controversies in mind, next semester. I wonder, reading through Nossel’s piece, if it would even be useful reading in this regard — perhaps as a way of illustrating a particular strand of argument, or setting the parameters of a particular dimension of debate. I doubt it, to be honest. But I wonder if it would be constructive to think collaboratively about what pieces would.


Hendoku 11.14.15 at 5:01 am

Bit too late in the evening to type up a more thoughtful post, but I do think there are elements of the current campus activist left who *are* hostile to free speech, see it merely as an instrument of white supremacist/patriarchal (/etc/etc/etc) oppression, and sees “liberal values” like free speech, academic freedom, and due process as having no inherent legitimacy separate from the content of the message that is being conveyed or the character of the person protected by these procedures. I’m sure the radical left has some wonderful philosophical defenses for this as a normative position, but I’m personally not willing to concede any of those points. In talking with the activists at my campus (who have called for the ousters of a few faculty members here), the closest I could get to an acknowledgement was by bringing up Salaita. But the lesson seemed to be, “hmm, yes its unfortunate that the right wing could adopt these tactics as well,” rather than “perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to purge people from institutions for perceived ideological offenses.”


Tom West 11.14.15 at 7:09 pm

Funny, but at least in my neck of the woods, one of the easiest ways to make a “career limiting moves” would be to make some public or in-office comment that falls outside the fairly liberal norms where I live.

I’ll admit I am in no hurry champion the right to offend others in the office.

As for the campus, most social change is a tug-of-war. Simply standing in the middle doesn’t accomplish very much. The radicals pulling for what I consider ridiculous speech codes are, in my opinion, likely responsible for many of the changes in society that I approve of (such as making overt racism déclassé among the middle class).

I’m a fairly firm believer that the social change I wish to see cannot be accomplished by people who hold my beliefs. It’ll be the radicals who have the time, energy and most importantly belief who will pull with all their might, and effect a movement of a few inches in the direction I’d like.


Alex 11.16.15 at 1:38 am

No, AN at #15 is exactly wrong.

JS Mill is saying there that “there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling, against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them”.

The students on campus calling for bans and speech codes and safe spaces are saying the exact same thing. They’re saying that the tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling (e.g. gender conformity) is being imposed on those who dissent from them (such as transgender students).

Now, universities serve two roles in society as institutions. First, research. It is perhaps debatable that some sort of restriction on campus free speech could harm research, in the sense of a woolly kind of “well all views need to be heard equally” generality. However, in the specifics, the speech under concern here has no value. Denying the basic humanity of a minority group (like transgender students) will not lead to any research breakthroughs. All it does lead to is a corrosion of basic Enlightenment values, such as the equal dignity of every human being. The idea that debating that in front of a consumer audience hosted by a university will improve research is preposterous.

Second, education. They are there to educate students, both for the good of the students, nd wider society when they contribute their knowledge. Tell me, if you’re a transgender student subjected to bigotry, considering suicide, how will your education be affected? I’ll tell you how – extremely negatively. As such, clamping down on this kind of abusive speech is necessary for the welfare of all students, and therefore for their education, one of the primary purposes of the university.

Is it illiberal? How can it be? For one, the State is not banning anything, people are free to take their speech elsewhere away from campus – and with the internet we’re able to reach inside everyone’s homes instantaneously, so today people tend to have more free speech outlets than ever before. In fact, it’s a core part of the right to free speech that autonomous people *and institutions* are able to regulate their own speech in order to promulgate their own views. We don’t tend to object to newspapers deciding their own political viewpoints for instance. I do agree with Corey though, that such private/semi-private regulation can be abusive too – as with employers over workers. And this can happen with universities, if management abuse their power and take away quite legitimate speech of students or academics. How to defend against this? The same way we would with any problematic hierarchy – democratise it. Let universities protect the welfare of their atudents, ALL their students, but in a way that has the democratic legitimacy of students and academics.


jccayford 11.16.15 at 10:18 pm

Even if the reasoning of Alex at #30 were correct, it does not address the argument against political correctness raised by AN at #15 (quoting Mill’s “On Liberty”) and me at #20. No one doubts that mainstream society suppresses dissent, but that in no way justifies the intolerant left in also suppressing dissent wherever it has the power to do so. Two wrongs don’t make a right; Mill’s point applies to both.

Political correctness is a betrayal of the left’s values, and the true left was pointing this out long before the right noticed. In the 1968 musical “Hair” the song “Easy to Be Hard” has these lyrics at the break: “Especially people who care about strangers/ Who care about evil, and social injustice/ Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?/ How about a needing friend? I need a friend.” The 1970 rock opera “Jesus Christ, Superstar” depicts Judas as driven not by greed but by political correctness: when Jesus lets Mary Magdalene rub his feet with oil, Judas says, “Woman, your fine ointment, brand new and expensive, should have been saved for the poor/ Why has it been wasted? We could have raised maybe three hundred silver pieces or more/ People who are hungry, people who are starving matter more than your feet and hair.” The wisest parts of the left have always warned of a dangerous fundamentalism that stubbornly inhabits our liberal subculture.

Of course political correctness is illiberal. For Alex at #30 to say it can’t be because it’s not enforced by the State is to miss Mill’s point entirely: civil society can practice “a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression … penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.” To dismiss this danger is also to fall for a prominent right-wing dogma that only Government is truly dangerous and the private sector is somehow magically benign.

I shouldn’t even have to argue that suppressing dissent is damaging to education and critical thinking, so I’ll let that one go.


anon 11.16.15 at 11:37 pm

Corey, I stumbled onto your Salon article here: http://www.salon.com/2015/11/15/the_free_speechp_c_argument_we_need_to_have_and_which_the_right_obscures_college_kids_are_not_the_enemy_corporations_and_the_government_are/.

And it reminds me a great deal of this article: http://chronicle.com/article/When-Free-Speech-Becomes-a/234207

Specifically, both cases seem to rely heavily on points like “The most critical term here is ‘arguing’ and ‘arguments.’ That’s what students are doing: arguing.” And that seems really question-begging, since no one is critizing them for arguing but for *how* they’re arguing. The worry is that the method is at odds with the ideals of free, open debate, not that arguing is.

Brian Leiter wrote a reply to the former article, perhaps you might look at it and respond, since it seems that a lot of his objections apply to yours as well: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2015/11/two-philosophers-weigh-in.html

A short quote of his main point:
“Manne and Stanley write: ‘[the students] are held to be attacking freedom of speech rather than exercising it to call for institutional reform….’ Rather obviously, they can be, and were, doing both. In spitting on speakers, petitioning for the removal of people from their jobs because of their speech, and heaping vulgar abuse in public on a faculty member in order to shut him down, they are trying to suppress and punish speech.

…calling for people to be fired for their expression, or spitting on them, or heaping vulgar abuse on them to shut them up are not behaviors compatible with a functioning university environment–as little as racist abuse and racial discrimination are.”

To my mind, the last point is quite striking, since it’s an immanent critique. While many critics of the students mock their suggestion that the campus environment be a “home” and a “safe space”. Even if we accept that demand, part of the problem is that their own way of arguing (I’d say it’s not truly arguing at all, since it doesn’t acknowledge the others’ right to speak or possibility of being right) makes discourse not or safe or welcoming for those who disagree with them. Their methods fail to meet *their own demands*.

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