We all know the saying: the pen is mightier than the sword. History has tested this assertion at every turn, even up through the modern age. If there’s anything that these tests have demonstrated, it’s that comparing pens and swords is like comparing apples and oranges. After all, the pen cannot defend itself. The power of writing is inherent, but it needs protection to truly flourish. This protection usually comes from the systems of our society, and as an American, I was raised believing that my freedom of speech is an inalienable right. Even so, people have died in my country for that right, as they have in countries around the world. The ability to say and write what one likes has been hard earned and is not something to be taken for granted.
Day of the Imprisoned Writer reminds us that no matter how much progress society has made in this regard, the fight over the right of imparting information is far from finished. Unfortunately, in just the past few weeks, the international community has been all too poignantly reminded of this fact by the death of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Living in self-imposed exile in the United States, Khashoggi was writing columns for The Washington Post when he disappeared during a visit to his native country’s consulate in Istanbul. After initial reports that a confrontation had led to his accidental death, Saudi officials stated that he was murdered in a premeditated plot.
Khashoggi’s murder brings the dangerous circumstances that journalists and writers face in the modern world into sharper relief. At the end of last year, a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists concluded that more journalists were in prison at that time than ever before, the second consecutive year that the number had broken its own record since the organization began keeping the statistic in 1992. More than half of those 262 writers were imprisoned in Turkey, China, and Egypt, but the consequences stretch far beyond those countries’ borders. The international context is just as important — and just as disturbing. These are states with a lot of sway on the world stage, and for global powers such as the United States to repudiate their actions is to risk alienation and escalated tensions.
Indeed, the Trump administration has been slow to criticize the regime of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who recently imprisoned journalists over the failed coup attempt of 2016, or that of Xi Jinping in China, the United States’ greatest trading partner. This is all at a time when President Trump has thrust the term “fake news” into the mainstream. His rhetoric has targeted more than just the individuals and institutions who seek to discredit him, and he has even gone so far as to call the media an “enemy of the people.” One has to wonder what kind of message this sends to the rest of the world, considering that journalists have been killed in the United States as recently as June of this year.
The praise that Trump and other modern politicians have received from their supporters for “speaking their minds” is incongruent with the realities faced by everyday people around the world whose intention is to do the very same thing and are punished for it. I cannot imagine having to second-guess every word I put on the page for fear of retaliation when writing is central to everything that I do — Passion Passport, like many other publications, would not be the same if we were limited in the stories we could share about the places we go. Having the freedom to show and tell is nothing short of a privilege, much like travel itself. If the circumstances that make Day of the Imprisoned Writer a necessity prove anything, it’s that the pen is mightier than the sword, because some people shudder so intensely at its power that they wish to silence it.
You might be wondering what all of this has to do with you, and you’d be right to think about that. The point of this day, which has been observed every year since PEN International introduced it in 1981, is to highlight the bond between all writers, regardless of their medium, genre, or subject matter. Even if you have not personally suffered because of your writing (or reading — since you can only read what others are free to write), take a moment to consider that a few years or a few thousand miles are all that separate you from a time or a place where your words might have placed you in danger. While these sorts of circumstances are completely up to chance, those that enabled you to be free of such fear are not at all random. That’s not to say anyone should feel guilty for one’s freedoms — but in a position of privilege, we should celebrate those freedoms by striving to make them available to as many people as possible. Not only is this responsible and just, it’s simply the least we can do.
Thankfully, travel gives us this opportunity. Whether you realize it in the moment or not, travel is a learning experience. Part of what makes it so great is the way we become sponges when we’re in a new place, determined to soak up every ounce of je ne sais quoi that gives a place its essence. It’s exciting, but at times, this can be a lopsided relationship. Especially when one travels somewhere less economically developed than one’s home, or somewhere with less political freedoms, is it fair to only take and to give little in return? Practices like voluntourism seek to bring equilibrium to that situation, but that’s not a realistic commitment that every traveler can make. A noble start toward restoring balance is taking what you learned from a place and disseminating that knowledge in your own environment. That transmission of information has been the raison d’être of every writer put in prison, but you don’t even need a pen to carry it out.
Whether or not you write, and regardless of the reason that you do or do not, I urge you to give your responsibilities as a traveler some special consideration on a day like today. You possess not only the freedom of movement, but also the freedom to share your experiences however you like, whether through images, blog posts, or a story over dinner with your friends when you get back home. I still love to think of travel like I’m an explorer of old, blazing a trail into unknown territory toward new discoveries. The information age can fool people into believing that we know all there is to know about the world because so much of it is at our fingertips these days. But travelers like you and me know that there is no substitute for experience, and having an open mind about what you don’t know will give you a greater understanding of the world in the long run.
Writing and traveling will both be necessary so long as there are different ways of life and different points of view. I certainly hope that holds true, because even though those differences sometimes lead to conflict and division, there is no reason that they should do so in the future. I don’t think it’s too optimistic to believe that our differences can strengthen the bonds between us, rather than build walls. Even where those walls exist, I’m sure the pen can cross them out.
If you want to support the cause of writers everywhere, consider donating to PEN or writing a letter of appeal to your representative or ambassador.