The Possibility of Kindness: Withdrawing From the English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017


Elizabeth Cutts in Mother Courage and Her Children, Stratford-upon-Avon, 1961

by Owen Vince

English PEN’s support of Milo Yiannopoulos’ “right to offend”, and their criticism of those who have urged his publisher (Simon & Schuster) to withdraw their book deal with him, is incompatible with my own concerns that he is a dangerous representative of America’s “alt-right”, as those who are responsible for promoting division and violence through racial hatred, misogyny, transphobia, and harassment. For this reason, I will no longer be participating in the English PEN Modern Literature Festival in April 2017 in London.

This year, I was fortunate to be invited to participate in the English PEN Modern Literature Festival, due to take place on the 1st April 2017. It was, without doubt, an honour to be invited to perform alongside so many brilliant fellow artists who are advocating for writers at risk worldwide. This is – and remains – important work, and I respect absolutely my colleagues’ wishes to participate and attend. Such work is no more important than at a time when we confront the emergence of a newly emboldened far-right (in both Europe and America), propelled by a government pursuing an attitude of what Benjamin Witte has recently called a “malevolence tempered by incompetence”. People, understandably, are afraid. And I took all of this in; I talked and read and listened. I re-read Celan; “the too much of my speaking”. Too much for whom?

This morning, I witnessed the news roll in as students and demonstrators at UC Berkeley protested against the appearance of Milo Yiannapolous at their campus, his attitude always veering between plucky misunderstanding (“What? Me?”) and indifferent swagger. One protestor claimed “we will not tolerate [him]”. He was not welcomed. A turned head, a rolled eye, would disappear. “We have a right to say we don’t want him here”. Milo claims he has the right to be “persuasive, interesting, and funny”. Milo luxuriates in saying the malign; if he persuades, he only persuades the extreme right to step away from reluctance and into empowerment.

I took all of this in. Milo; the protestors; a normalization of unkindness.

How do you confront it?

A series of decisions, steps, considerations. These led, eventually, to my decision to withdraw from the PEN Festival due to what I see as a conflict between my own views and those of the organization. In January 2017, English PEN’s head of campaigns and communications, Robert Sharp, criticized those individuals who had reached out to the publisher Simon & Schuster, who had recently announced they will be awarding a book deal of $250,000 to Milo Yiannopoulos in the U.S under their imprint Threshold Editions. This, preceding the protest.

Yiannopoulos – a UK citizen and tech editor of Breitbart News – has become notorious for using his public platform and substantial online following to express a tirade of shocking and dangerous views as well as to promote campaigns of racist and sexually violent online abuse, doxxing, and harassment. This includes his calling rape culture “a fantasy” and transgender people “mentally ill”. These are not just views, but speech acts around which his followers have been galvanized and emboldened.

I was one of those publishers – as editor of PYRAMID Editions – who urged Simon & Schuster not to go ahead with the deal, for fear that the work will only further legitimize and embolden the so-called ‘alt-right’ (white supremacists), for whom Yiannopoulos has become a ‘figurehead’. Any such book will not further debate, but frighten genuine resistance and alternative voices who have already been pushed to the margins. I fear the deal is primarily motivated by sales than promoting debate.

In supporting Yiannopoulos, and in criticizing those who have campaigned against his being awarded this powerful public platform to further sew the gross malevolence of his division, misogyny and racism, Robert Sharp criticized those of us who have spoken out against Yiannopoulos and the book deal as undertaking what is tantamount to “censorship”. I disagree absolutely with this position. I reached out to English PEN, asking them to clarify Robert Sharp’s comments, and to ask whether these represented the official position of the organization. Jo Glanville, the Director of English PEN, responded quickly to my email, confirming that yes, this was and is the organisation’s official position.

Free speech is the right to speak, but to speak within a culture. Any act of communication comes from a particular context; Yiannopoulos, a high-profile commentator with a substantial online following and media position, has significant privilege and power which automatically differentiates his views from those of others. While many claim that modern society is over-saturated, a “milkshake” of undifferentiated information, not all of that information is equal. Yiannopoulos’ words and opinions have power; in the case of Leslie Jones last year, this power and its platform was sufficient to see a horrifying campaign of hate-speech and discord directed toward her.

I will be withdrawing from participating in the English PEN event not because I do not hold free speech and artist’s rights in high regard, but because I acknowledge that, as writers and publishers, we have a responsibility to consider from where we are speaking. Yiannopolous has exploited his position to direct words of significant harm and damage; words which represent the blunt edge of a newly emboldened white supremacy, in the US and beyond. I cannot participate in a festival organized by an organization who support views which have gained so much support from the far-right fringes both online and offline, from 4chan to political office. I’ve been heartened and encouraged by colleagues who have supported and reassured me. I was heartened by author and commentator Roxane Gay’s decision to pull publication of her next book from Simon & Schuster, saying “I just couldn’t bring myself to turn the book in” for Yiannopolous’ “blunt, inelegant hate and provocation”.

Now more than ever, it is crucial that we stand up to and reject this normalization of racism and populist, far-right ideology. That we reject the narratives of the far and extreme right. As artists and publishers, we have a responsibility to curate the spaces we speak in; not in order to repress or to silence, but to protect marginalized communities and voices who have been repeatedly bludgeoned by powerful individuals speaking from positions of great power and little responsibility. Put another way, it’s important that we hit back. I’m grateful to writer Megan Nolan for putting me on to this quote by Bertold Brecht; that, “’kindness’ comes to mean the annihilation of those who make kindness impossible”. So let’s be kind. Let’s be very kind.


About the Author:

Owen is a writer and visual artist living in London. His recent works and performances include ‘404 recurring’ (a sound/text performance and digital installation) performed at the Horse Hospital, London, and ‘the adrift of samus aran’, published by Fathom books in the US. He tweets @abrightfar.