History tells us that rising dictatorial regimes first silence and eventually criminalise journalists, authors, and other writers that dare to question the status quo or otherwise express and explore difficult, painful, or controversial truths or themes in their writing.
Today, authors face a new rising fascism: the tyranny of the professionally offended. This article in the Spectator recently brought it to my attention again. The publishing world is being attacked by this cancerous, fear-driven scourge with writers (particular writers in the Young Adult market) being cowed into rewrites following scrutiny from so-called “sensitivity readers”.
To be fair, no-one wants to be deemed “insensitive”, and depending on the subject matter an author may choose to undertake a certain amount of research to avoid inadvertent offence. However, submitting to the whims of sanctimonious, self-righteous keyboard warriors determined to find new and increasingly elaborate ways in which they can appear victimised is another matter entirely. “Sensitivity readers” are there to make sure the temper tantrums of this vehement vocal minority are taken into consideration. In fairness to these doubtless well-meaning industry specialists, their advice is just that, advice. It’s another layer of editorial input which authors, in most cases, can probably ignore if they choose. But authors are increasingly caving to pressure when they shouldn’t. Incidentally, I find it particularly dispiriting that even some authors have joined in this shameful, cowardly, hypocritical bullying, only to subsequently find themselves on the receiving end of angry social media mob group-think.
Anthony Horowitz, one of my favourite writers, recently came under fire for his plans to write a black protagonist. The furious reaction to this is, to my mind, nothing less than a reinvented form of apartheid thinking, encouraging segregation and therefore a lack of understanding and empathy. Demanding that authors only write about what is in their personal experience and history (within their gender, race, sexuality, culture and so on) is preposterous, and many great works of art would never have been written under such absurd parameters.
Yes, I will concede that my experience as a white, middle-aged, middle-class man is likely to be different to those of other backgrounds, but the whole point of writing fiction is to do just that. We are using our imaginations. I’m not female, but most of my horror novels feature female protagonists. I am not gay, but I have written gay characters. I am not black, but I plan on writing a science fiction story sometime soon which features a black protagonist. For me, the whole point of this exercise is to imagine myself in someone else’s shoes. My success or failure in that respect should be about the quality of my stories and nothing more. Yes, it’s true that people writing within their racial, cultural, or gender experience might produce work with different, perhaps truer insight, but that doesn’t mean such subject matter should be off limits to talented authors capable of exercising their imagination.
Think of the many classics we wouldn’t have if this idiotic way of thinking were adopted throughout history. Should Kazuo Ishiguro, a Japanese man who has spent most of his life in England, not have written about the upstairs/downstairs culture of the 1930s English upper class in The Remains of the Day? What about Shakespeare? How dare he write a black protagonist in Othello. What about Mark Twain? Harper Lee? How dare white people write about slavery or racism in the likes of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird. Speaking of To Kill a Mockingbird, we live in a world where some even deem that offensive, demonstrating an astonishing inability to discern the difference between depicting racism and endorsing racism.
To add a controversial point to this, the painful truth is that – intentional racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth notwithstanding – everyone has prejudices, often unconsciously, and to pretend otherwise is foolish. When it isn’t displayed in a preachy way, I actually rather like detecting the sometimes irrational prejudices of authors in their texts, because it adds character. Philip Pullman’s anti-Christian prejudices make him who he is (and I am defending his right to freedom of speech as a Christian myself). Tolkien’s Luddite technophobia is likewise amusing, as are CS Lewis’s prejudices against teetotalers, non-smokers, and vegetarians. Unfortunately, I can imagine today’s “sensitivity readers” removing the afore-mentioned reference at the memorable opening of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I’ve also detected multiple prejudices in JK Rowling’s writing – again, some of which provoked a wry smile.
Amid the current hand-wringing climate of “woke” paranoia, as an author, if you decide to play the game, you simply cannot win. If you don’t feature a certain ethnic group, gender, or sexuality, you are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or guilty of poor representation. If you include them a little, you are guilty of tokenism. If you feature them too prominently, you’re guilty of cultural appropriation. Let me be absolutely clear: I despise identity politics. They are actually causing a backlash against progressive values. They play right into the hands of those who use them as an excuse to double down on genuine racism, misogyny, and so on (the hateful rhetoric of the so-called Incel crowd is a good example).
Enough is enough. It’s time for authors everywhere to unite against this stupidity. Don’t be bullied. Don’t be intimidated. Don’t join social media mobs out of peer pressure or fear, and above all, do not submit to the whims of the professionally offended. Free speech must be protected at all costs. Stand your ground. Take no prisoners. Never surrender.
If your work offends, so be it. For every pitchfork wielding bully that takes to Twitter to eviscerate you, I believe there will be many, many more who defend your freedom of speech. Make no mistake; what the online mobs are calling for is censorship and fascism. It will be a cold day in hell before any “sensitivity reader” gets to vet my novels. If my work offends, the reader is entitled to their opinion. They are entitled to proclaim it as much as they like. But no-one has the right to not be offended. As an author, that is a hill I will die on.