Panelists Valzhyna Mort, Chris Abani, Vijay Seshadri and moderator professor Doran Larson.
Panelists Valzhyna Mort, Chris Abani, Vijay Seshadri and moderator professor Doran Larson.

Hamilton hosted a panel of three internationally acclaimed poets Saturday for a discussion of recent issues surrounding freedom of speech, both within the USA and abroad.  Part of the International Writers Festival, the panel was sponsored by the Department of English and Creative Writing and included Chris Abani, Vijay Seshadri and Valzhyna Mort.

Set against a backdrop of the multiple recent acts of violence and censorship targeted at journalists and writers across the world, the panelists discussed the state of free speech in America, their previous experiences with censorship and suppression in their respective countries of expertise, and the crossing-points between free speech, democracy and secularism.

The panelists had significantly differing views with regards to the topic of the relative freedom of speech in America. Pulitzer Prize winning poet Seshadri was the first to broach the topic, evoking the experience of protesters and war-critics in America during the 60’s. “In the 60’s people were saying amazing things, and there was not a significant crackdown,” he said, adding “there were episodes of violence, but nothing like the violence that occurs elsewhere. Looking back on it … I disliked the power structures at the time, but now I realize that the system worked.”

To Seshadri, even though the United States has not had to “suffer history” in the same way that other parts of the world have, the core right to freedom of speech has held up remarkably well to stress and time, owing in many ways to the fact that the freedom of speech is attached to a host of other rights within the American Constitution. Contrasting the American system with that of his country of birth, Seshadri was critical of Indian censorship laws, saying that the key principles enshrined within the Indian constitution are secularism, democracy and socialism, and that secularism and free speech often find themselves at odds. “In India there is a constant struggle to protect the views of minority communities, notably the Muslim community, while also asserting the values of a modern state,” he remarked.

Chris Abani, a Nigerian-born author now living in America, took issue with some idyllic characterizations of free speech in the west. “In America speech is not taken seriously, they allow you to talk as much as you want but no one’s listening,” he said.  Abani was quick to outline what he believes to be an important distinction, that of the difference between speech and talk. Speech, he argued, is deliberate and formulated, claiming “Speech has intention, talk is just talk... talk doesn’t deserve to be censored. Lobby groups, capital groups, they galvanize behind powerful speech, speech that has the ability to institute structures of power.”

Other rights, Abani asserted, are just as tenuous in the US as the freedom of speech, claiming that in the US the protection of an individual’s rights is highly contingent on that individual’s race and class. To make this point he cited the longstanding right that the KKK has enjoyed to the freedom of assembly, contrasted against the relative difficulty groups like the Black Panthers have faced in obtaining and maintaining that same right. Another example evoked the shootings of early January 2015 in Paris, France. “Charlie Hebdo was terrible, and we defend their freedom of speech. But in France you can’t protest for a free Palestine, so where is the freedom of speech there?”

Valzhyna Mort, noting that she intended to play the devil’s advocate, made the point that censorship can in many cases foster a populace more alert to information, saying “what censorship does is teach people how to listen, how to read. Censorship follows rules that everyone knows, you learn how to cut around the lies. There’s no value to freedom of speech without an audience who are keen for it.” Mort, originally from Belarus, spoke to conditions in her home country. ‘In Belarus the people who came to the French embassy after Charlie Hebdo to stand in solidarity were arrested because there is no right to assembly. People are not even allowed to stand in large groups on their cell phones, because that was being used as a way to organize.’ She argued that the populations of countries where freedom of speech is suppressed place far greater value on information than those in nations with well-defined protections on the rights to assembly and speech. She claimed that as the concept of free speech is a part of the “American ideological machinery,” people too frequently talk about defending and loving free speech, which “allows unfree speech to exist and for nobody to question it.”

Before concluding, the panel turned to questions from the audience. One question, aimed at Valzhyna Mort, raised the issue of the extent to which a poet can be considered the voice of a generation, or of a people. Mort quickly shied away from this characterization, claiming that “the poet is not the voice of a generation, or the voice of a people, because a poet is the voice of something superhuman. The poet isn’t even the voice of herself. My poetry is not the voice of a woman named Valzhyna, poetry is something more,” she said.

Mort also emphasized again the value of literature in informing the public and sparking debate, saying “It’s very human to judge, we judge before we understand. Literature is the only space where we can be free, where the only morality is that there is no morality.”

One of the final points made came from Vijay Seshadri, bringing the discussion around to the ways in which discourse can affect positive change. “We can talk about this all day long, but for me the question is what are the grounds by which change can occur? What are the ways by which we can reach a more enlightened understanding of human interactions?”

It was on this note that the panel drew to a close; that, much as Abani had distinguished earlier in the discussion, talk is not what affects change, powerful expressions of speech and the actions that follow are what is needed in order to drive the discourse forward and move step by step toward a better world.

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