Andrew Solomon, an LGBTQ activist and Columbia University professor—who also happens to have written a few books, including 2012's Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity—is now the new president of PEN American Center. A week after being named to the post, we talked to Solomon about free expression, hate speech, and his next book.
In light of January's Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, how do you think writers and journalists can best demonstrate their support for free expression?
The best advertisement for free expression is the use of it. We have a moral obligation to speak of difficult topics, and to speak for people in countries where such open speech is perilous. We demonstrate our support for free expression when we refuse to let the Chinese censor a book we are publishing in the People’s Republic; when we write openly about the complexities of Islam and refuse to be bullied into silence; when we push and push to find out the truth about the prisoners held in Guantanamo; when we insist that writing can be a moral act.
Where do you draw the line between free speech and hate speech? In other words, how can we protect vulnerable people from discrimination, while still maintaining the right to free expression?
Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous epigram about “shouting fire” is often condensed to lose much of its meaning. He said: “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic. [...] The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger.” Note that Holmes's delimitation rests not only on 'danger,' but also on 'falsely;' it is perilous fabrication that he calls into question. Hate speech is dangerous—Holocaust deniers or the KKK, for example, sow great darkness, and my time in Rwanda taught me how easily propaganda can drive ordinary people to appalling acts.
Pope Francis and David Cameron have each proposed new standards for limiting freedom of expression, and their intent seems to be good. But if we are to err in one direction or the other, let us err in the direction of vulgarity, of obscenity, even of mean-spirited prejudice, and not in the direction of closed-ness, of being afraid to speak out, of a propriety that obliterates what writers, artists, or citizens believe to be uncomfortable truths. Counterintuitive though it may seem, liberty of discourse leads to justice more readily than well-intentioned, enforced control does.
PEN's public programming in the past year has included subjects ranging from net neutrality to feminist poetry. What other relevant topics do you hope to include in future programming? And are there ways in which your work as an activist for LGBTQ rights and mental health will cross over into your post at PEN?
I should make it clear that the decisions about programming rest primarily with the staff and with our splendid executive director, Suzanne Nossel. But I hope we will continue to work to bring the literature of the world to the U.S., and to defend free speech in situations such as Ferguson, where journalists were blocked, illegally, from covering unfolding events. I do hope that this will include the voices of people with mental illness, who so often go unheard; to people with other disabilities, who remain so underrepresented in our government and in our art; and to LGBTQ people, whose freedoms are still curtailed in many American states and in much of the rest of the world.
What are you working on right now, in addition to your new position at PEN?
I’m re-releasing my depression book, The Noonday Demon, with a new chapter to bring it up to date; I’m assembling a collection of my travel writing; and I’ve just started on a new book that deals with the idea that in an era when women are likely to work and men are likely to be more involved in childcare than their fathers, our ideas of motherhood and fatherhood are beginning to merge into an ideal of parenthood—a change reflected in and occasioned by changed attitudes about divorce, single parents (by choice or otherwise), gay families, open adoptions, and all the other new structures that make up the American family.