Miami Book Fair 2017 Authors Address Free Speech
As a fiction writer you are exploring human truths using fictional situations and characters but those who write nonfiction are and should be constrained by fact. This is not a question of the free expression of ideas; rather it’s about honesty and integrity in journalism.
Claire Messud, author of The Burning Girl
Lies are a form of free expression– declaring that a pizza parlor traffics children — and so there isn’t, for me, the conundrum of free expression driving out free expression. I think what needs to occur is that lies need to be immediately challenged with mockery and animus. Even if we do that the lies will continue. We will, however, have pushed back. This is the time to redouble our commitment to what we believe in and to use whatever energy we have to expose lies.
Akhil Sharma, author of A Life of Adventure and Delight
I support the open exchange of all ideas, but I also wish that people had the judgment to tell the difference between valid and toxic ideas. My new book, Don Quixotic, is about Trump, and it’s about giving him a sense of humanity. That doesn’t mean that I agree with him, of course, but some people are angry even that he’s being permitted basic humanity (as a character) and think that it normalizes his policies. This is, of course, not true. As for fake news, I don’t think there’s any way to suppress lies and nonsense, but journalistic organizations should work hard to make sure that their own reporting is of a higher quality. As for trolling, how are you going to stop people from being foolish? From making trouble? From using platforms? It’s unfortunate, but you’d have to roll back technology.
Ben Greenman, author of Dig if You Will the Picture: Funk, Sex, God, and Genius in the Music of Prince
Poet Matthew Roher writes that “Irony and satire are the tools by which the oppressed get to make fun of the oppressors without the oppressors getting it.” This is the power of satire–one kind of “fake” news, I suppose. But when the oppressors use “fake news” of a cruel nature, it is what is called, in comedy. “punching down.” It’s horrible, irresponsible, and unproductive. Furthermore, it truly doesn’t work as any kind of social commentary as it is not even meant to be funny or ironic or illuminating in any way. I do believe in the open exchange of ideas. However there are slander laws and “fake news” must be called out constantly, consistently.
Denise Duhamel, author of Scald
“I do support the exchange of ideas as a very high value and a crucial part of democracy. As it happens, screaming vile epithets and waving Nazi flags is not an exchange of ideas; it’s screaming and waving Nazi flags and I a) have no patience with it and b) I believe that if the screamers are non-violent, they must be allowed. Let them lift so much as an empty soda can, and police must arrest them immediately.
As a novelist, I don’t write to recommend or to guide people to moral behavior or to share my political goals. As a person, I’m politically active and do my best to debunk fake news, encourage resistance, persuade and, when useful, deride, in detail.”
Amy Bloom, editor of New Haven Noir and author of Lucky Us
As a writer, I can’t support censorship of ideas, even if I find them despicable. I’d rather they be expressed loudly than suppressed to the point of explosion. The problem is that ideas alone won’t change minds that are galvanized in oppositional ideologies. No one listens. No one learns anything. There’s no exchange of anything beyond noise and anger. If I can hear an angry mob, I can avoid it and work where I’m more effective.
I’m thankful I’m a memoirist, and not a breaking newsbeat reporter. Most breaking news ends at incident, which often sparks outrage, and then backlash. It doesn’t delve deeply into story, where empathy and understanding are created. A report of a murder is only an abstract idea or statistic. The story of the life that preceded tragedy is what matters more, because it gives a genuine loss to grieve, and in order to heal, one must feel the pain of a wound’s depth and understand the severity of the injury.
If anything, the current zeitgeist has strengthened my resolve to be more candid in my writing. I was teaching creative writing at Florida International University during the last presidential election. Many of my queer and minority students felt the ballot results were a personal attack. They didn’t understand we were experiencing the resurgence of an ancient war sparked by antiquated fallacies of false comparison, hasty generalization, and an appeal to fear.
I told my students, “Those voters don’t know you. If they knew how miraculous and beautiful your stories are, there’s no way they could hate you.” A big part of why I write memoir is that hatred only flourishes if we are ignorant of one another’s struggle to survive. It’s our greatest commonality, and the one venture everyone is destined to fail, no matter how hard we fight.
Testimony is more powerful than news, because it adds intimate detail and complicates the ideologies we become locked in when we can’t hear above all the shouting. The best thing a memoirist – any writer – can hope is that our work will find readers willing to stretch past ideological division and reach a greater understanding of our common struggles. And if we are fortunate, if there is truth in our storytelling, our work will become part of the history of an era humanity learns not to repeat.
Jan Becker, author of The Sunshine Chronicles
I’m not sure I completely understand the link between an overflow of fake news and the suppression of free expression. Isn’t the overflow of fake news, misinformation, and trolling evidence of an excess of free expression? I.e. anyone can put anything out there? And I’m not sure I completely understand the link between an overflow of fake news and the question of whether I support the open exchange of ideas at all costs. In fact, I’m not sure I support anything “at all costs.” But perhaps this question is centrally about our responsibilities as readers as well as our responsibilities as writers. Many years ago, in an author’s note in Best American about her short story, “The Girl on the Plane,” Mary Gaitskill wrote about a reader’s responsibility. Some readers of the story had complained to Gaitskill that they didn’t know how they were supposed to feel when they read it. Gaitskill was confused. She wrote, “Why would an adult look to me or to any other writer to tell him or her what to feel? You’re not supposed to feel anything. You feel what you feel. Where you go with it is your responsibility.” If we don’t take responsibility for our feelings, she argued, how can we take responsibility for our actions?
Many of us feel that literature should exist to reinforce what we already think and feel, or if we’re not sure, literature should tell us what we should be thinking and feeling. The bookend to this attitude may be our sense that if a piece of literature expresses its own thoughts and feelings too strongly, it has somehow made it impossible for its readers to have differing and equally strong thoughts and opinions. The literature I most love reading and aspire to write is an attempt at discovery. As a reader, I love nothing more than to have my sense of myself adjusted by a piece of literature. I don’t want to be the same person coming out of a reading experience as I was going in. The same applies to my hopes as a writer. As E.M. Forster has famously said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”
And a genuine attempt to figure out what I think and feel about what matters most to me may very well be an uncomfortable and difficult prospect. The central goal of both reading and writing is to expand our empathetic abilities by way of our imaginations. Doing that is, and should be, difficult and complicated. Writers should write what they want to write, and then readers should react. So: writing and reading, we feel what we feel. And then we take responsibility for those feelings as a way to learn something about ourselves and the world in which we live. And then we act on what we’ve learned.
Karen Shepard, author of Kiss Me Someone: Stories
I absolutely support open exchange at all costs. Sometimes it seems we need to express what is worst in us in order to burn through it.
To be honest, though, all my energy goes into my writing, and I try not to get pulled down too much by the awful things happening in the world. My only reaction to cruelty and intolerance is to try to invent more kindness.
I don’t take fiction writing lightly. I really do believe that fiction, both the writing of it and the reading of it, is a very civilizing thing. In it, there’s the possibility of learning to understand—and even to love—people who are nothing like you. And that’s where the miracle of art happens, and you change.
Victor Lodato, author of Edgar and Lucy
Opinions aren’t facts, and I can’t quite believe that we are in a moment when that is something that needs to be explicitly said. Yet, here we are. Like most complex problems, I think the causes are multiple and varied and hard to look at directly, much like an eclipse. I think yes, ideas should be exchanged freely, and I say this in the hope that the more humane, thoughtful and progressive ideas are louder than ones that are built on a scaffold of injustice. As for my own work, I mine history for my fiction, and the historical record is nothing if not unreliable. So I suppose, my misinformation radar has been on high alert since before any of this. When I think of what I do when I retell the story of an obscure historical character, or write about a historical moment from a unique point of view, I realize that I am doing some rescue work, countering the misinformation of the history books, and engaging in a kind of narrative justice.There’s an urgency there now, and a demand from readers for this kind of clarity from the past.
Chantel Acevedo, author of The Living Infinite
I think the First Amendment is one of the greatest gifts that our Founding Fathers have bestowed upon us. As a former journalist, I am wedded to the idea of a robust and open exchange of ideas. Of course, like other gifts, this one can—and has been—corrupted by those who would use the First Amendment to promote their hateful and vile ideology. I am also cognizant of the fact that much of this vileness is used to attack the most vulnerable members of society. It is a sad but true fact that the same Amendment that protects The New York Times, also protects the lies and hate of Infowars. This is the price one pays for living in a democracy.
The issue of “fake news” has no direct impact upon my work as a novelist because readers have different expectations of a work of fiction than they do of a news story. One turns to a news story for the facts; one turns to literature for the truth. I will say, however, that this general shift in our culture toward misinformation and attacks upon the marginalized, has only made me take my craft even more seriously. I believe that in an era when our politics and our media are both polarized, only literature has the power to bind and heal and remind us of our shared humanity. I find myself writing more and more about characters with whom I may not share a race or a nationality but with whom I share a sensibility. At this time, I believe it is incumbent upon writers and artists to take a stand and to choose sides. All art is political, whether we characterize our work in that manner or not.
Thrity Umrigar, author of Everybody’s Son
Free speech has never been a free-for-all, and to say otherwise is a willful misunderstanding of the principle. I can publically say I hate someone, but if I called their house every day and threatened to kill them, or attempted to incite someone else to do the same, that is an entirely different matter. The current uprising of white nationalism has nothing to do with free speech, but the continued concentration of a very real threat to the lives (and, by extension, free speech) of millions of vulnerable Americans. It’s not a mere idea, nor is it run-of-the-mill racism; it’s an ideology that fundamentally hinges on violence and genocide. Similarly, I can say that I disagree with a particular political principle, but if I called ever news station swearing that the moon is a hoax, and is in fact an orbiting Russian satellite that can read our minds, the media should not be obligated to give my “side” airtime. The inability to distinguish between competing perspectives and a complete disconnect from reality is, I think, going to be our unmaking. As a writer, I’m fascinated by this confusion, even though it horrifies me. In my fiction, I explore these urgent questions: what does it mean for someone to say one thing even though another has happened? What happens when we engage in false equivalence? What happens when people are gaslit within an inch of their sanity? How do we fight against all of this?
Carmen Maria Machado, author of Her Body and Other Parties
The “fake news” phenomenon is troubling. Not because writers and newscasters are making up “fake news.” I’m blown away by the way the audience is so quick to accept the unfounded mutterings of an uninformed, uneducated source—the President–and that even though that source is often caught on tape contradicting himself, his base still thinks he’s telling the truth.
It’s baffling and I know there’s nothing I can do about that, except maintain my own practice of researching and writing stories—even fiction—that is based on evidence, on history, on written documents and testimony.
My new book, LOLAS’ HOUSE: Filipino Women Living with War, is a documentation of 16 Filipina “Comfort Women” testimonies. The Japanese government has yet to officially acknowledge and and take responsibility for the abduction of over 400,000 women and girls all over Asia. In fact, they have been actively suppressing this history.
During the writing of this book, I was acutely aware of my responsibility to present an accurate account of the women’s stories. I have cross-referenced the testimonies with older documents and other iterations of their narratives. When it was possible, I traveled to abduction sites and garrisons with the women, listing dates, locations, and maps. I have touched the women’s war wounds. This, to me, is evidence.
LOLAS’ HOUSE, though literary creative nonfiction, is heavily researched.
M. Evelina Galang, author of Lola’s House
If we suppress free expression and open exchange of ideas in this country, we might as well burn all books ever printed and shut down all schools as well.
Charles Simic, author of Scribbled in the Dark: Poems
We do need to be very concerned about both the balkanization of information — the way various camps are no longer even sharing basic sources of information any longer, which makes the possibility of bringing such camps together on various issues infinitely more difficult — and the kind of white noise effect of the overflow you cite, which is producing in many people I talk to a sense of being barraged and making them withdraw. I support the free exchange of ideas, if not necessarily “at all costs,” but this seems to me much more an issue for news and nonfiction, given that literature is so far from America’s cultural mainstream, and given that the audience that consumes literature is much less prone to be seduced by what George Saunders has called The Brain-Dead Megaphone.
Jim Shepard, author of The World to Come: Stories
Given the nature of information today – its instant fluidity and massive dissemination – who is to say we can control it any longer? The notions of true and false, fact and fiction, might simply belong to a previous century. George Orwell, in his prescience, saw what the Nazi’s did with the ‘truth’ and ‘fact’ regarding lebensraum and a great many lies about the Jews and he saw what was possible across time and continents and that more newspapers, more television, more billboards will only make the nature of truth more subjective as it bifurcates out and out and out. The chaos will overcome us and we will be left to tease out our truths.
I trust in fiction. A story cannot escape itself. This gives me great liberty to explore and expand my mind in the direction of my curiosities. I research diligently and am never through researching even when the book is over. And while I do not hold any claim on the truth, these investigations, through fiction, have brought me close to some deep recognitions. It is important that we stay close to the creative mind, the mind tuned to the truth before us. The more a writer censors themselves, their beliefs and their understandings, the less impact the work will have, both on the page and off.
Laleh Khadivi, author of A Good Country
As someone who worked as a journalist for thirty years, and as a refugee from a country where the media is entirely controlled by the state, I am a pretty strong advocate of the free press and freedom of expression. In my writing, I do tons of research and always have, so that hasn’t changed, but I do find that the current political and media landscapes change how I think about and approach my audience. I’ve been consistently surprised by how easily people seem to fall for things. But I don’t think censorship is the answer. I want kids to be taught critical thinking and media literacy, taught to write and research and fact check — given the tools to spot fake news and identify propaganda. That’s the best way I can think of to counter the trend.
Achy Obejas, author of The Tower of the Antilles
In talking about this question with a friend of mine, she reminded me of a quote that very succinctly sums up my views of freedom of expression. To paraphrase: one person’s right to swing a fist ends where another person’s nose begins. Everyone should have the right to express themselves freely so long as they are not interfering with someone else’s right to do the same. I take this to be a core tenet of democratic value and my views on that have not changed as a result of the current proliferation of misinformation. For one thing, I am not entirely convinced that “fake news” is a new phenomenon. There has always been a great deal of misinformation circulating in our society. What is far more troubling is the fact that we currently have a president who has repeatedly given tacit approval for the expression of violence and intolerance which are of course antithetical to the open exchange of ideas. Donald Trump did not create the level of intolerance in our society but I believe his election is largely a result of it and as president he has seen fit to legitimate it.
Violence is not freedom of expression. Intolerance is antithetical to the principles that mediate its value. Freedom of expression is not simply about rights it is also about responsibility. Living in a democracy requires an acceptance that everyone will not share my views and beliefs. But for me, as a citizen and a writer, that acceptance is also predicated on an understanding that my support of the rights of others to express views and beliefs I do not agree with is inherently connected to my own right to do the same.
Ladee Hubbard, author of The Talented Ribkins
The phrasing of this question doesn’t really express the potential terror of what it can potentially cover. “The open exchange of ideas” suggests a sane and civil swapping of theories. I’m all for anything sane and civil. I am actually for people writing things that insane and uncivil. Writing is each of our private business. Writing is as private as your own thoughts. Publishing is a whole different matter. I believe that publishers should consider more than “will this sell” when selecting a title for inclusion on their lists. They must ask whether they want to endorse this idea and whether they are prepare to bear the consequences of this endorsement– for better or for worse. This debate hasn’t affected my work because I stand by every word I write.
Tayari Jones, author of An American Marriage
Like many writers–and many others, too–I’ve been moved to outrage, dismay, and grief by that we can or should mess with free expression. Years of studying the history and fallout of East European communism and other dictatorships, including for the story in The Shadow Land, has strengthened my conviction. The idea of “at all costs” is a tricky one, however, as your question implies. I think the solution lies somewhere in a stringent dialogue, one in which we address “fake news” by using our freedom of expression to publicly condemn fake news for exactly what it is. Censorship tends to come back to bite the censors, whatever side of an issue they may take.
Language matters very much, obviously, which is why we’re more concerned now than ever as a society about the hurt that language can cause and the oppression it can be used to justify. When we dig up ugly things and take a new look at them–they’re ugly, yes, and then we have a chance to address them more meaningfully, more powerfully, out in the open. It’s the free and open argument, built on freedom of expression but taking it farther, that’s a hallmark of a non-repressive society.
Elizabeth Kostova, author of The Shadow Land
I used to say that we writers are political by nature, not by design. I used to say (and in retrospect, I realize how embarrassingly elitist this sounds), that any novel that has as its backbone a political design is propaganda, not art. And that the literary artist, possibly by exposing fiction’s own necessary falseness, might achieve a kind of Truth beyond the truth. Politicians, though, devil in different truths altogether.
South Florida’s own novelist and writing instructor, John Dufresne, says it brilliantly in his The Lie that Tells the Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction, one of the best how-to books around; how simple truths, in the hands of the writer, may be to transformed to the upper case. In this book John gestures toward the vital work he actually does in his fiction.
But these days devil politicians have placed our very notion of truth in crisis. And even the suggestion of Truth has become an embarrassment. Writers now have the more mundane obligation to wrestle back truth by every means possible, to reinstate the complexities of truths politicians have made it their business to simplify, or altogether deny. It’s a duty we writers must face together, one might say, “before it’s too late.” This crisis over truth has made my own fiction unembarrassingly political in ways I never could have imagined.
Robert Antoni, editor of Trinidad Noir: The Classics and author of As Flies to Whatless Boys
I was introduced to poetry by getting up on stage and doing it. At the time, during the late ’80s and early ’90s, my hometown of Chicago was a hotbed of performance, with writers and other artists utilizing technology, collaborating, doing anything at all to clarify their message. We didn’t read to the audience, we talked with them. We invited confrontation and debate, and no one truth was superior to another.
The people who believe and invest in “fake news” are craving and wounded in ways that can’t easily be repaired. Their fight is not my fight. For the rest of us, if we know and recognize “fake news” (and we do), is it really “news”? I’m more interested in the reason for its proliferation, the origins of the hurt and and mistrust and vengefulness that spawned it.
I don’t have a problem expressing myself in my work. I realized long ago that every person is in charge of the story of his or her life and–if you don’t command the telling, you had it over to someone else who will. As long as my truth is rooted, I can be a willing and capable witness to the truths of others. I thrive on the idea of that open exchange. Beneath all these declarations–be they insightful or certifiably insane–are real human people. And I can’t learn from just a few of their voices.
Patricia Smith, author of Incendiary Acts: Poems
It might be a good idea to take a 360-degree walk around that statement. There’s been a lot in the press lately about how the alt-right (since Charlottesville confrontation more openly called white supremacists or Nazis outright and never mind the “neo”) has misappropriated the First Amendment for the protection of hate speech. And indeed these groups do make the claim that their right to free speech is being suppressed—with the evidence of their recently expulsion from many social media outlets and internet platform services, for example.
But those on the left are apt to read that statement differently—as descriptive of a situation in which our political enemies lie with wild abandon and trolls do their best to bully our sympathizers into silence. The latter has indeed been an ugly and sometimes deeply disturbing spectacle. We’re against bullying, so the trolls must be stopped…from speaking. Look closer and we’re dangerously close to saying that people who don’t agree with us should just shut up. Whatever free speech is supposed to mean, it isn’t that.
Note that “fake news” is a term enthusiastically used on both sides, although, in my left of center opinion, most of it is produced on the right.
Karl Rove once explained (perhaps recklessly) to a journalist that the assumption “that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality,” was regarded by himself and his cohort as passé;”That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”[i] This vision was enunciated more than a decade ago. Today, roughly half of American society is terrified—and the other half exultant– by how much of it has come to pass.
I’m for the open exchange of ideas at all costs, as a writer, citizen and human being, but there’s no universal market for that exchange any more, thanks to the general splintering of opinion—much of which has been engineered by Rove-ish manipulation of the media, especially the internet. (Kurt Andersen’s “How America Lost Its Mind,” in the September 2017 Atlantic, provides an excellent capsule history of how it all was done.) Result: Trump’s base inhabits its own reality—as we do ours, one must not forget to say.
So, there’s no open field where we might meet the trolls in fair debate and shame them into silencing themselves. Speech, for the moment at least, has failed, and instead the discussion is happening with sticks, if not heavier weapons, on various occasions where the violent sector of the alt-right has tried duking it out with what’s lately been called antifa. The future of that sort of thing is scarier to me than anything of the other more-than-sufficiently-scary things going on at the moment. As a white Southerner, I will restrict myself to saying that one civil war in this country was more than enough; people who don’t remember that should.
What can a literary novelist do to remedy this whole predicament? In a climate where people only listen to speakers who only reflect their own beliefs, that riddle is hard to solve. Preaching to the choir, no matter how eloquent, is not the answer. A truly open exchange of ideas is just what we need, but we are further from having it now than at any time in our history. There has to be a civilized and (dare I say it?) reality-based conversation across the chasm that divides us. So far, I only wish I knew how to start it.
Madison Smartt Bell, author of Behind the Moon
As a writer I must uphold the First Amendment right for anyone to speak his or her mind. I support the open exchange of ideas, no matter how repulsive they might seem to me or those around me. The problem is not the open exchange of ideas, but the reluctance of people, especially those in positions of leadership, to condemn what is offensive with sufficient vigor. The right to express myself freely in my work comes with the added responsibility to consider how what I write will affect others.
Pablo Medina, author of Alejo Carpenter’s The Kingdom of this World
There are many issues here. I have just spent ten years writing about the Rusisan Revolution and have some ideas about this subject. First, I dislike using ‘the media’ interchangeably with ‘journalism’—the media is the mode of transfer. Journalists investigate and report news. “Fake news” is an oxymoron. Propaganda is the correct term. News is verifiable. We should be very careful with our language and not allow authoritarian elements to recast it into Orwellian Newspeak.
As for free expression, there’s a line between free speech and hate speech. Threats of violence, speech which incites violence, which inflames hatred, is where free speech stops and hate speech begins. Threats against any group define the boundaries. We famous have a right to bear arms too, but in practice no one has free speech when highly armed civilians can freely confront or intimidate others.
Also, we cannot have free speech as a foundational right in a country where people are not treated equally under the law.
Telling a reporter or blogger you’re going to kill her or rape her is not protected free expression, as it seeks to curtail the other’s freedom by threat of violence. It should not be treated as expression, but as a criminal act. Furthermore, telling an entire country to attack the press, to undermine the role of the press and the judiciary, is a threat to the nation, not freedom of speech.
In these times, it’s important to look at the broader forces behind our current situation. Whose pocket is being picked as the conjurer shouts ‘Fake News!’? Who benefits from this chaos, this degradation of the civic compact? Cui bono, who gains? as the Romans would say.
How has this affected me as a writer? I am a citizen first, and I am more likely to speak out directly now, instead of keeping my hand hidden in my fiction. But as a fiction writer, my approach is to show a world where free speech and propaganda are warring for attention, and to examine what happens when propaganda wins, and how that comes to pass. I have spent the last ten years writing a book set during the Russian Revolution. I well understand the mindset that believes all means are justified by their eventual ends.
Evil is not mysterious, it’s about motive and the ability to find justification for self-interest. The fact that our press was not sharper in challenging propaganda and favor of carnival and ratings is to its utmost shame.
For decades, the press neglected its first duty to the country—to educate, not to entertain– and now we reap the result. People no longer know what critical thinking looks like, and so are powerless to tell the difference between an opinion and a fact. We have too often allowed opinion and entertainment to take the place of news.
We must be very careful with language. Recently, the press has begun to take up the neo-conservative term ‘antifa’ to characterize opposition to the rise of neo-Nazism and White Supremacism–as if traditional democratic values were a movement comparable to neo-Nazism. I don’t want to see mainstream American values being linguistically recast by the radical right.
I think if I were to write a novel about the current situation, I would write it from the point of view of a neo-conservative operative, working to normalize the abnormal. I would write about a Steve Bannon or a Steve Miller, and examine the psychology and motivation of the man behind the curtain.
Janet Fitch, author The Revolution of Marina M.
As a writer I can’t help but support the open exchange of ideas — the onus is on writers to continue to speak truth to power, to exercise that right using language, our best and only tool. I’ve noticed, in my own creative process as well as those of my friends and students, is that it’s more unbearable than it’s ever been before to remain silent. I am not a political writer, per se, though I am political, and I am a writer. It seems to me a political act, in these times, to remain true to a vision, to be unafraid of uniqueness, to attempt to speak any kind of truth.
Dani Shapiro, author of Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage
As an illustration of Voltaire’s beliefs, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I generally continue to trust what this principal implies, namely, that each of us has the right to free expression, no matter how misguided or “wrong” one party may think the other one is. It’s a slippery slope: if we dismiss or silence one point of view, then where do we draw the line—and who gets to draw that line? What’s more, who gets to decide what kind of free expression is authentic or legitimate and what kind is not? Freedom of expression needs to remain an open forum, and I think our country continues to uphold that idea.
The real issue at hand isn’t freedom of expression, per se, but rather the responsibility that comes with that freedom, namely, listening. We’ve been doing a whole lot of talking, but very little listening to each other, in the true democratic spirit of debate. It’s easier than ever to live in an echo chamber where we only hear opinions and perspectives that agree with our own.
As such, ironically we don’t really solidify are very beliefs because we’re not challenged to more effectively articulate and instill them. I feel that part of my role as a poet is to get people to listen to each other and tear down barriers to understanding. The poems in my current book, Boundaries, are meant to do just that– by investigating those visible and invisible boundaries of race, gender, class, and ethnicity, among many others; they challenge the physical, imagined, and psychological dividing lines—both historic and current—that shadow America and perpetuate an us vs. them mindset by inciting irrational fears, hate, and prejudice.
Richard Blanco, author of The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood