Lisa Appignanesi - Express yourself

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This article is from 2008.

Lisa Appignanesi - Express yourself

Kate Gould finds Lisa Appignanesi on good form as she discusses the history of health and the future of censorship

Campaigner, novelist, President of English PEN, memoirist, biographer, and historian: Lisa Appignanesi is a woman of many passions. As a historian, her extraordinary Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 to the Present, took on the psychiatric profession and its treatment of female patients. Written with eloquence and a passion for her subject that is palpable, it should be required reading for both medical students and those already practicing in the field.

‘I’ve long been interested in the vagaries of the inner life, its excesses – madness, badness and sadness – and all the states in between,’ explains Appignanesi. ‘We are in the grip of a colonising system of psychiatric classification which draws narrow brackets around the “normal” and finds illness patterns in too wide a range of our inner experience and social behaviour. But we are also far readier to give our unhappiness a medical name, so that we do indeed suffer from a whole array of madness and sadness.’

As President of English PEN, she led their campaign against the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill arguing that ‘offense was an emotion it is easy to feel, but the only safeguard for a plurality of belief and non belief was free speech. Laws curbing free speech inevitably chill expression: they work their way into publishing and the media, all of whom prefer, at the advice of a retinue of lawyers, to err on the side of caution. It’s easier to censor and eventually to self-censor than to go to court. Satire, imaginative writing and investigative journalism are the first victims. A general impoverishment of the culture as a whole gradually ensues.’

This autumn, PEN launches a campaign against ‘libel tourism’, a practice in which the rich and powerful clamp down on publications which they see as affecting their reputation, even if it often exposes their corrupt ways. ‘The libel laws need to be re-thought,’ says Appignanesi. ‘In particular, the burden of proof needs to fall on the side of the plaintiff seeking to adjust the purported assault on his reputation, not on the defendant, the writer. Otherwise we’ll find people from despotic regimes setting our own agenda of what it is permissible to say which might eventually be very little indeed.’

Lisa Appignanesi, 17 Aug, 5pm, £9 (£7); Freedom of Expression, 17 Aug, 7pm, £9 (£7).

This article is from 2008.

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