Is Self-Censorship a Problem for Writers? – The New York Times

December 12, 2021 by No Comments

Anyone who came to PEN America’s town hall discussion on writers and self-censorship on Wednesday night expecting the romanticized literary fisticuffs of yore — let alone the total war of modern social media combat — would have come away disappointed.

No one shouted “cancel culture!” in the semi-crowded theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what the 100 or so live spectators (and those who tuned in online) did get was a sprawling, impassioned but overwhelmingly civil conversation among four prominent writers about art, identity, appropriation and the state of free expression.

Those are subjects that have roiled literary circles, including PEN itself, which has increasingly balanced its defense of free speech with consideration of the ways marginalized people may be constrained from raising their voices to begin with. But the playwright and novelist Ayad Akhtar, PEN’s president, introduced the event by affirming the “bedrock principle” of free speech against those on the left who dismiss it as a mask for power and those on the right who wield it as a cudgel.

“A widespread and punitive stridency descending on us from every quarter,” he said. And writers, he said, are “caught in the middle.”

The event was about that middle. There were points of tension, but little overt disagreement. Which isn’t to say there was much overt agreement either, including on whether there is a problem, and if so, what it is.

John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University and author of the new book “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America,” opened the discussion, which was moderated by Suzanne Nossel, PEN’s executive director, on a blunt note. “To be a writer today, in the current climate, is to be someone who certainly probably censors themselves in some way,” he said.

McWhorter, who also writes a newsletter for the Opinion section of The New York Times, noted his public identity as “a contrarian” on race issues. But does he hold his tongue on some subjects? Absolutely.

He recalled an academic talk he gave in the mid-1990s, about Creole languages and women, which “some in the audience chose to interpret as offensive and sexist.”

Listening to their criticisms, he said, “I thought, ‘I don’t deserve this.’ And I decided I would never again say or write anything about issues having to do with women or sexism.”

Wajahat Ali, the author …….



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