Enduring Advocate for Free Expression: John Ralston Saul in Conversation with Brendan de Caires

In February of 2011, the Writers’ Union of Canada awarded John Ralston Saul its Freedom to Read Award. The award honours Canadians who have made a significant contribution to defending the right to read and write freely without fear of reprisal.

Saul is the president of PEN International and a former president of PEN Canada. He was instrumental in establishing PEN Canada’s Writers in Exile program. Some of his many titles include co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, founder and honorary chair of Le français pour l’avenir/French for the Future, and founder and chair of the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium on advancing an egalitarian and inclusive approach to democracy.

Saul’s award-winning books and essays — including The Unconscious Civilization, Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West and A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada — have had an important impact on political and economic thought around the world. In June 2011, Brendan de Caires sat down with Saul to discuss his lifetime of work for freedom of expression.


BdC When did your commitment to freedom of expression begin?

JRS In the 1980s, I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia and North Africa, and I had friends who were in trouble all the time. Intellectuals who were arrested, beaten up, forced into exile. When I went to those countries, I didn’t think that I would make friends with people whose lives would be on the line because of what they wrote or spoke.

It was naïve on my part. I was in my twenties, and I hadn’t thought through the implications for people who opened their mouths. I had always been able to open my mouth. So in the mid-1980s, I focused on PEN as a place to direct my primary effort outside my writing.

Here I am at 64 and the issues are the same and we are still fighting them.

BdC Of all the campaigns that PEN took on, what are your proudest achievements?

JRS Of the recent things, I think the position on China has been very complex and very sophisticated. It’s very hard to pull freedom of expression in China to the centre of the debate and hold it there. But if you look at it as a long-term or medium-term process, it’s really quite successful.

The members of the Chinese PEN Centre have shown incredible courage and professionalism. There are thousands of people making billions of dollars who do not want freedom of expression to be at the centre of the debate, and we just keep pulling it back there. At the same time, we keep saying, “You know, we are actually on China’s side. It’s just China that is not on China’s side.”

Also, when I ran to be president of PEN International, I said that one of the most important things was to protect smaller languages and endangered languages. The issue hadn’t been a big theme of PEN’s because it didn’t seem to be related to literature or freedom of expression. But of course the issue is directly related to both because all of these languages have literatures. If you lose your language, you lose your freedom of expression. So it’s exciting that PEN International is now committed to working in this area.

One other achievement. Last year, we joined a session in Geneva at the United Nations Human Rights Council to discuss the question of religious defamation.* We went with a group of mainly Arab and Islamic writers. It really caught the attention of the human rights community in Geneva.

We were helped by the fact that the leader of the other side, who was the representative of Pakistan, stormed out and made a terrible fuss and said PEN is a Western organization. And, of course, I was sitting there—the only Westerner at the table—and everyone else was North African or Asian. So storming out was just the silliest thing he could do.

So we just continued and, in its latest statement on the subject, Geneva has dropped its desire to get status for religious defamation. That is an enormous achievement, and we can claim at least 50 per cent of it.

You win for freedom of expression by the simple fact that you keep going and you are there. You demonstrate that this is what civilized activity is like. This is what responsible citizenship is like. Being silent, or accepting crumbs from the table, is the worst thing you can do.

BdC What are the most pressing issues of freedom to read and freedom of expression in Canada?

JRS It’s very clear to me that education in Canada and elsewhere has been moving in what can best be called a utilitarian direction. The result is this idea of measurables—that things have to be measured—and, of course, that has a disastrous impact on literacy.

Our levels of illiteracy and functional illiteracy are very high. Up to a quarter of the population is illiterate, or functionally illiterate, because the educational approach toward language has lost its content. This utilitarian thing is a blow against freedom of expression.

If people can’t really read, they can’t take part in debate. If they are not reading, they are not writing. Remember that the Charter of Rights guarantees freedom of expression. It is the most important of those four guarantees. Freedom of expression is about writing and reading, speaking and listening. The reading and the listening are as active as the writing and the speaking. So if you are not reading, you are not part of the debate and you have lost your freedom of expression.

I think that this is a real challenge. It is absolutely essential to bring, if you like, the imagination and literature back into the core of learning to read at school. It’s not the fault of the teachers; it’s the fault of bureaucrats and the people who design the programs. They are acting as if the students are stupid. They are not challenging the students.

BdC How about freedom of expression outside the education system?

JRS This is equally a problem across the big cities of Canada. If people aren’t engaging with real writing, then they are giving up the fundamentals of how democracy works.

And you just have to remember that, in spite of some of the politicians around at the moment, Canada has a long list of great leaders at the federal, provincial and municipal levels. Almost without exception they were intellectuals. The great prime ministers of Canada—Conservatives and Liberals—were all intellectuals. And the bad ones were not. They read. They thought. They considered ideas. That is how they were able to lead a complicated country.

If you don’t have an intellectual idea of a place—an imaginative idea of the place—you are lost.

BdC In a few years, what would you like to be remembered for as president of PEN?

JRS It’s very simple. I keep saying that my job is to help drag the concept of freedom of expression into the absolute centre of public consciousness in the public debate.

*Since 1999, the representatives of Muslim governments in the U.N. Human Rights Council have voted for resolutions that call for an end to the defamation of religion, especially Islam. Western governments and organizations such as PEN International, however, oppose the resolutions because they would effectively ban the criticism of religion around the world and curtail freedom of expression.

Brendan de Caires is the programs and communications coordinator for PEN Canada.

“Enduring Advocate for Free Expression” is reprinted from Freedom to Read Kit 2012.

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