Can Courage be Learnt?

The author Malcolm Gladwell wrote the popular book Outliers: The Story of Success.  ‘Outliers’ is term he gives to incredibly successful people, but I’ve used the same word to describe that particular sub-genus of political activist, who persists in challenging authority when others are intimidated into silence.  These people are often sued, imprisoned, attacked and even murdered because of what they write. It is my great privilege to work with and on behalf of such people at English PEN.  They are compelling because they are so unusual in their societies (a fact that makes them even more vulnerable as people in power seek to make a public example of them). What makes such a person?

Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series Revisionist History has only recently been launched but it’s already in the Top 10 downloads on iTunes. Episode 03 ‘The Big Man Can’t Shoot‘ revisits the idea of what makes some people take different decisions to others, told through the fascinating story of two basketball players.  It gives some insight into what makes both types of ‘outlier’—the successful sportsman; and the tenacious political activist.

The episode asks why barely any professional basketball players shoot free throws underhand. It’s a technique that is proven to yield more points for a player… but it’s also deemed ‘cissy’ or a ‘grandma shot’.  Social pressures prevent basketball players from making a simple change to improve their game!

The reason for this bad choice is not ignorance.  Basketball player Wilt Chamberlin said he knew he was better shooting underarm than over, but he chose the inferior technique anyway.

Gladwell explains that we all have a psychological threshold that must be met before we change our behaviour.  Towards the end of the episode he describes what’s going on in our heads when we make these kinds of choices:

He doesn’t care! The kind of person who would let bad things be said about him in his own autobiography is the kind of person who would shoot a free throw that other people think looks ridiculous. … Someone who puts the responsibility of mastering the task at hand ahead of all social considerations. Who would rather be right than liked.

It takes courage to be good. Social courage. To be honest with yourself, to do things the right way.

To my mind, the idea that someone like Lydia Cacho or Liu Xiaobo or Mazen Darwish has ‘courage’ is true, but also slightly trite, because it only describes what they have done, not why or indeed how. Courage is difficult behaviour to discuss because it is unclear whether it can be learnt or whether it is innate.

Malcolm Gladwell’s contributions here offer arguments for both.  First, his discussions of a low psychological ‘threshold’ that can inspires radical behaviour (or a high threshold that can discourage it) implies that something innate. It’s just a part of our personality that we acquire at an early age. However, as he describes elsewhere in Outliers, a great deal of talent can actually be acquired through practice (specifically, focused practice).

Perhaps courage, as displayed by the political activists and writers I work with, can be similarly taught!? I wonder what this looks like in practice?


Photo: Syrian journalist and activist Mazen Darwish (right), recipient of the 2014 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage.  Darwish spent 4 years detained without trial in Syria. © Robert Sharp

Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News

“Here was a case of people doing harm to themselves on government orders, because there was no voice in society saying, This Is Wrong”

Earlier this year I recorded a podcast with the award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram. We discussed his wonderful book Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship, an account of the extinction of press freedom in Rwanda.

This week the podcast and an edited transcript of part of the discussion was posted in the PEN Atlas section of the English PEN website.  You can listen to it on SoundCloud or via the player below. Continue reading “Podcast: Anjan Sundaram – Bad News”

Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry

British poets can show solidarity with embattled writers while developing their own creative practice

My colleague Cat Lucas and I sat down with Paul McMenemy, editor of the Lunar Poetry Magazine, to tell their podcast listeners about the work of English PEN. We discussed imprisoned Saudi poet Ashraf Fayad, how blogging is the 21st century version of pamphleteering, and how British poets might show solidarity with embattled writers while developing their own creative practice at the same time.

You can listen on the Lunar Poetry website, via YouTube or judt hit the play button on the embedded podcast below. Continue reading “Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry”

Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities

Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech.

Commissioned by and first published on the Free Word Centre blog


In recent months there has been a great deal of discussion and debate on the subject of free speech at universities. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford, and the protests over controversial speakers like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, have kept the issue in the headlines, and the publication of Sp!ked Magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings seems to have emboldened free speech advocates to push back against campus censorship. A new campaign, Right2Debate, targets the National Union of Students (NUS) and its No Platform policies that prevent controversial speaker events from going ahead.

As a campaigner with English PEN, I support the campaigns to expand free speech at universities. But in recent weeks I have become increasingly frustrated with the way the debate is evolving. Each side talks over the other, and some of the fundamental questions at the heart of the issue remain unresolved. Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech. Continue reading “Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities”

Let’s ban corporations from using law to silence their critics

English PEN is working with Scottish PEN on a campaign to reform the law of defamation in Scotland.  I wrote an opinion piece for the Herald’s ‘Agenda’ slot, which was published in the paper yesterday.  There was also a news report about it, giving more information about corporations that sue.


The law of defamation in Scotland is woefully out of date.

It has not been reviewed since 1996, before the Scottish Parliament was re-established.

During this time, the internet has evolved from a hobbyist’s plaything into the centre of public discourse, and yet defamation law has failed to adapt to digital communication. Continue reading “Let’s ban corporations from using law to silence their critics”

Debating Saudi ‘Red Lines’ on the BBC

Later in the show, the Saudi panellists also suggested that the campaign to free Badawi might actually be hampering the chances of his release. This is an extremely difficult thing to hear when English PEN has invested so much into campaigning on Raif Badawi’s behalf.

On Wednesday I was invited onto the BBC World Service programme ‘BBC World Have Your Say’ to discuss Raif Badawi’s PEN Pinter Prize and the issues experienced by bloggers in Saudi Arabia. Also on the show were Evelyne Abitbol, Chief Execuitve of the Free Raif Badawi Foundation and Saudi Arabian journalists Essam Al Ghalib, Eman Al Nafjan of Saudi Woman, and Abeer Mishkas.

You can hear our segment via the player below or on SoundCloud.  The entire programme can be heard on the BBC website or BBC iPlayer. Continue reading “Debating Saudi ‘Red Lines’ on the BBC”

Mazen Darwish is Free

English PEN today received formal confirmation that all charges against the Syrian journalist and writer Mazen Darwish have been dropped.  He is a free man.

Darwish is the founder of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), an organisation that has fearlessly campaigned for free speech in Syria despite the appalling civil war and associated human rights abuses.  Darwish, along with his colleagues Hussein Gharir and Hani Al-Zitani, were detained in 2012 and held without trial until earlier this year. Continue reading “Mazen Darwish is Free”

‘Draw the Line Here’ Mocks the Men in Masks

Such images are a form of wish fulfilment – if only a pen or a brush could really stop bullets. But they are also visual mantras, an assertion of the well-worn phrase that ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.

Another article on Huffington Post, published yesterday.  I’ll write something on the launch event too at some point soon.


Today we mark the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transport system, which killed 52 people. It’s also exactly six months since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, in which 12 people were murdered.

The public response to both these outrages was an overt show of defiance to the terrorists. In the days after the London bombings people shared ‘We Are Not Afraid’ images and continued to ride the tube. Immediately after the Paris attacks, ‘Je Suis Charlie‘ became a message of solidarity and a statement that we will not be scared into silence.

The Paris killings also inspired artists to pick up their pens, pencils and paint brushes. Some of the most eloquent responses to the tragedy were not words, but pictures. A new book, Draw The Line Here, which brings together over a hundred such cartoons, will be launched today in London. Continue reading “‘Draw the Line Here’ Mocks the Men in Masks”

Revenge porn: A law introduced to protect women is already being used to prosecute one

A law introduced as a way of protecting women is already being used to prosecute a woman.

An article by yrstrly for Independent Voices, on unintended consequences with revenge porn laws. The issue of gender blind laws (and principles) is relevant to my earlier post about apparently misandrist, racist tweeting.


Last year, when campaigners pushed for a new law to prevent ‘revenge porn’, it was clear who they were hoping to protect: women.

Introducing the campaign to parliament in June last year, Maria Miller categorised the issue as a form of violence against women.  All the case studies invoked by campaigners involved women being humiliated by their ex-partners, and MPs discussed the exposure of celebrities like Rhianna and Jennifer Lawrence.  The charity Women’s Aid presented examples where women were forced into posing for photographs by abusive partners, saying that “perpetrators of domestic violence use revenge porn as a tool to control, humiliate, and traumatise their victims.”

It is surprising, then, to hear that one of the first prosecutions under the new law will be the ‘tabloid personality’ Josie Cunningham.  A law introduced as a way of protecting women is already being used to prosecute a woman. Continue reading “Revenge porn: A law introduced to protect women is already being used to prosecute one”

Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award

Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.

Charlie Hebdo is not a racist publication. But even if it was, its stand against fundamentalist religion took courage and should be applauded.

Freedom of expression is being debated yet again, and this time my colleagues at the PEN American Center are in the middle of the discussion.  Six of its members have withdrawn as ‘literary hosts’ from the annual fundraising gala, in protest at the decision to award Charlie Hebdo a ‘Freedom of Expression Courage’ award.

In the New York Times, Peter Carey, one of the boycotting authors, is quoted as saying:

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?”

Salman Rushdie was also quoted in the New York Times piece, defending the award:

“If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name,” Mr. Rushdie said. “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

Continue reading “Round-up: Charlie Hebdo and the PEN Courage Award”