The PEN Pod: What to Expect in the Final Days Before the Election with Suzanne Nossel
Every Friday, we discuss tricky questions about free speech and expression with our CEO Suzanne Nossel, author of Dare to Speak: Defending Free Speech for All, in our weekly PEN Pod segment “Tough Questions.” In this week’s episode, we talk about what voters should watch out for in the final days leading up to the presidential election; our decision to honor Darnella Frazier, the young woman who documented George Floyd’s murder; and the beheading of the schoolteacher Samuel Paty in France. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Suzanne is up until the 12:57 mark).
This is it, Suzanne. We’re all glued to our screens, the hours are ticking by until we get to Election Day—which, I guess, is really the end of the campaign season more than anything else. What should voters be watching out for in these final moments?
One of the things we’ve been saying for a while is that this will be the end of voting season, but it may not be the end of election season, in that it may take another few days—even conceivably stretching out for another few weeks—before this thing is said and done. In places like Pennsylvania, we know they cannot begin to count absentee ballots until the polls have closed, and we know there have been an overwhelming number of ballots by mail cast in many jurisdictions. So, it’s going to take some time for everything to be sorted out.
Depending on which states break where, it may be that the outcome is still in doubt and hanging in the balance for some time. It’s going to be extremely important for people to remain patient, not to jump the gun or jump to conclusions. We know that the patterns in terms of voting preferences among in-person and by-mail voters can vary. So, the fact that in-person tallies look a certain way on election night may not tell the full story. Back in 2018, the blue wave did not really manifest until days—and then weeks—after election night, when all the votes had been counted for that midterm election. I think, yes, it’s coming to a climax, but it may not be over for some weeks more.
“It’s going to be extremely important for people to remain patient, not to jump the gun or jump to conclusions. We know that the patterns in terms of voting preferences among in-person and by-mail voters can vary. So, the fact that in-person tallies look a certain way on election night may not tell the full story.”
From our perspective, we are seeing this swelling tide of disinformation about all things voting. There’s a story this morning about how election officials at the local level are becoming overwhelmed with having to deal with these phone lines lighting up with crazy questions: “Are these ballot drop boxes fake? What about those ballots I saw on social media lying in a heap in the trash?” All kinds of things, many of which are false and need to be debunked, and it’s taking a lot of time and energy. We’ve done a lot of work over the last few months training many thousands of Americans to recognize the insignia of disinformation, and that’s extremely important. But, we’re all going to have to be on our guard.
One thing I would say that’s good is that there really is an extraordinary array of organizations that are now in close touch and working together to respond to these reports as they surface, and who bring a lot of tools, wide networks, access to the media, etc., so that they can amount a forceful response in real time. But, I think all of that is just going to be on overdrive for the next several days, and possibly several weeks.
“I think so many more people came into the fight just because of the unmistakable and undeniable horror and brutality of it—that got people off the sidelines. It was just an extraordinarily powerful act, and just a gutsy act. Surrounded by police in this really tense situation—what would it have taken for one of the police officers to look in her direction, notice she was filming, and who knows what?”
This week, we announced that we’ll be honoring Darnella Frazier, who I don’t think is yet a household name but should be. This is the woman who recorded the murder of George Floyd. It comes also as, this week, another person was gunned down by police, this time in Philadelphia—a 27-year-old man named Walter Wallace. Say a little bit about why we’ve decided to honor Darnella and how bearing witness to these murders, as painful as it is, is an act of expression.
Look, we give this award each year to individuals for usually a specific act of courage in the exercise of free expression. Darnella really stood out for us. Every time I think about it, I’m really struck by this 17-year-old who was out going to a store with her younger cousin, and all of a sudden, she finds herself in the middle of this extraordinary scene. It was not a momentary scene. The scene in Philadelphia this week—as absolutely bone-chilling as it was just watching Walter be gunned down—happened in a space of some seconds. With George Floyd’s murder, it unfolded over nearly 10 minutes. So, Darnella was there steadily, methodically, unflinchingly bearing witness to this—obviously not knowing where it would go or how it might end—and in so doing, captured this footage that transformed our national debate and sent millions of Americans out to the streets in protest. It prompted reform measures in police departments all over the country and sparked the introduction of national legislation. Would all that have happened if she hadn’t had that quick-wittedness to take action in the moment and capture this preposterity? Probably not. As much as the raw emotions, the motivation, and passion behind the campaign were there and ready to be ignited, it took that video to galvanize people.
I think so many more people came into the fight just because of the unmistakable and undeniable horror and brutality of it—that got people off the sidelines. It was just an extraordinarily powerful act, and just a gutsy act. Surrounded by police in this really tense situation—what would it have taken for one of the police officers to look in her direction, notice she was filming, and who knows what? She certainly was exposing herself to that. The other piece is, in the aftermath, she was on the receiving end of all sorts of really cruel criticism: Why didn’t you intercede? Weren’t you just out for money in capturing this? She became the target of online harassment. For us, it just seemed really important to stand by her, and to elevate and celebrate her act of courage in doing this. These critiques after the fact, I just find them so inexplicable. What was she supposed to do? You can’t exactly call the police when this is what is unfolding at the hands of police. Was she going to juxtapose herself in the middle of the situation now? No. What she did, what she could, and that act had enormous power and consequence. So, we’re really honored to have the chance to recognize her.
“I think it’s been very important that certain Muslim voices in France and around the world have condemned this murder, and spoken out clearly about it as an act of terrorism. I hope it doesn’t spark a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, because we know that also can happen. This is the act of a single individual, and yes, he may have been motivated by Muslim theology, but that doesn’t mean that what he did is something that’s embraced by all Muslims. It’s far from it. So, we need to be very much on guard that this doesn’t trigger another vicious backlash that only deepens these schisms.”
It’s going to be exciting, of course, during our virtual gala on December 8. Finally, I want to talk about Samuel Paty, the French schoolteacher who was killed after he showed controversial cartoons of the prophet Muhammad in his classroom. The killing has stirred questions, obviously, about defamation of religion and how far free expression can go, and France’s backlash has caused concern among the people who are defending the civil liberties of Muslims in France, who say that they’ve gone too far. A few years ago, we honored the Charlie Hebdo staff with a similar award. What’s your reaction to all of this?
It was the same award, and we gave it to the surviving staff of Charlie Hebdo in 2015, in the wake of the murder of 12 of their colleagues at the hands of a gunman who came and invaded their office. This incident is an echo of that trauma and a really chilling act. This teacher, Samuel Paty, had taught the lesson about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and freedom of expression. He had said to the Muslim students in his class that if they wanted to step outside of class and not to see this or be part of it, that was fine. It was what we would think of as a trigger warning in an American context—letting people know about something that might be upsetting, and giving them the option to beg off of it. Then, he came under this withering criticism sparked by a parent from the class who was saying that the display of these cartoons was deeply offensive, and that’s true. We know that these cartoons are considered profoundly offensive in Muslim circles. The parent was accusing the teacher of having shown pornography, because one of the cartoons depicted Muhammad naked.
I don’t know what that parent had intended—and fair enough to make a complaint—but unfortunately, we’re living in such a powder-keg society that this young, radicalized French Muslim of Russian descent, who lived 60 kilometers away, just took matters into his own hands. He went to the school, asked the students to identify the teacher, and beheaded him on a sidewalk, in broad daylight. He was apprehended and killed in a firefight with police, but it just goes to show, I think, the knife’s-edge environment we’re living in, where people have accepted this notion that speech can be a form of violence, that it can justify violence—and that ends in violence. So, I think it’s been very important that certain Muslim voices in France and around the world have condemned this murder, and spoken out clearly about it as an act of terrorism. I hope it doesn’t spark a wave of anti-Muslim sentiment, because we know that also can happen. This is the act of a single individual, and yes, he may have been motivated by Muslim theology, but that doesn’t mean that what he did is something that’s embraced by all Muslims. It’s far from it. So, we need to be very much on guard that this doesn’t trigger another vicious backlash that only deepens these schisms.