How Woke Put Paid for Editing
News that Salman Rushdie had been stabbed on stage at a literary festival in New York shocked the world. This sparked an outpouring of sympathy for the author, who has spent more than 30 years with a fatwa placed on his life. Amid concern for Rushdie’s health, some have begun to wonder if satanic verseshis 1988 novel accused of blasphemy against Islam, may even be published today.
It’s not an unreasonable question. Attitudes towards free speech, blasphemy and Islam have all changed significantly over the past three decades. Horrible crimes such as the murder of journalists from the French publication Charlie Hebdo in 2015 continued prompt support for freedom of the press. But it took exactly two days for some to suggest that #JeSuisCharlie solidarity would have “Play into the hands of racists and fascists”. Rare is the defense of freedom of expression that comes without reservations: freedom of expression, but not for racists or Islamophobes; but not without consequences; but not the freedom to say things that I personally find offensive.
The result is that many who work in journalism, academia or publishing are now more concerned with avoiding offense than testing the limits of what can be said. In this context, advocating for freedom of expression often arouses mistrust. Defenders say they are aligned with racists, transphobes, deplorables. And nobody wants that. Rather than post and be damned, the message is to censor yourself in accordance with fashionable awakened values, or risk being cancelled. How did it happen?
In the 1980s, “woke” was black American street slang for being alert to specific racist threats as well as prejudice and injustice more broadly. “Woke” exploded into mainstream consciousness with the first incarnation of Black Lives Matter following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. In 2016, magazines were carrying lists “young and woke” featuring “celebrities leading by example.” They profile “15 Sexy Celebs Who Get Even Hotter Once You Realize How Wide Awake They Are” and gave us “The Ultimate Guide to Awakening Celebrity Bros.”
As the revival grew in popularity, its definition narrowed. To challenge injustice in general means adopting a particular political position. To be awake today is to see the world through an identity lens. People are not viewed as individuals but as members of a group, with each group assigned a place in a hierarchy of privilege and oppression. Recognizing this “intersectionality” requires that, rather than being color blind, we focus on skin color and judge people accordingly. New orthodoxies are emerging: racism is systematically embedded in the psyche of white people; gender floats without biology. To challenge these orthodoxies is an act of heresy, a modern form of blasphemy. At the same time, those who now police have woken up are denying the label. Woke only exists in the imagination of old white men, they claim.
Yet, as I explore in my new book, How Woke won, despite the few activists, organized groups, or political parties that rally around the word “woke”, the values associated with the term have come to dominate all aspects of society, from schools and universities to the police. , business, health care and justice. The creative industries – museums and art galleries, journalism and publishing – have proven to be particularly fertile ground for cultivating awakened values. This did not happen overnight, but over several decades. And this did not happen because of the merits of enlightened thought, but because institutions, devoid of any intrinsic sense of purpose, were unable or unwilling to uphold liberal values.
The fatwa against Rushdie was issued in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s Supreme Leader. In 2022, the ethos of the fatwa seems contemporary with Western attitudes. Wokethinking asserts that certain identity groups are more vulnerable than others due to oppression, even though it asserts that words are not only powerful, but equivalent to actual violence. To paraphrase a popular academic text, words can hurt. According to this way of thinking, not using the correct pronouns for a transgender person is not just a slip or statement of biological fact, but an invalidation of the person’s identity and a denial of their right to exist. The meeting of these two ideas – that people are vulnerable to offense and that words hurt – leads to censorship. Tragically, it can justify in the minds of a small number of deformed individuals acts of murderous violence.
Such beliefs impact every aspect of the publishing industry. The first task any author faces is securing a book deal. This is much more difficult to achieve if your views are heterodox but your identity is not. Stories abound of even established authors seeing new work turned down by mainstream publishers or books rejected long after the contracts have been signed. Those lucky enough to make it to the submission stage of a manuscript may find that they are expected to work with a sensitivity drive— indeed, a second editor, whose role is to point out stereotypes and point out words or phrases likely to offend so that they can be modified or deleted.
Even a proven ability to produce international bestsellers does not guarantee you a smooth journey through the publishing process. In November 2020, employees of Penguin Random House Canada complained that they had to work on Jordan Peterson’s site. 12 more rules for life. According to a report in Vice“Another employee said ‘people were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson had affected their lives.’ They said a colleague explained how Peterson had radicalized their father and another explained how the publication of the book would negatively affect their non-binary friend. Amazon employees staged a ‘die-in’ protest to try to get the online retailer to stop selling what protesters called ‘anti-trans’ books. They probably wanted Amazon to emulate Targetwho pulled Abigail Shrier’s burning book, Irreversible damageoff its shelves following complaints from transgender activists.
Books are no longer safe from woke censorship, even when they have been in the public domain for a long time. In 2020, author and teacher Kate Clanchy won the prestigious Orwell Prize for his memoir Some Children I Taught and What They Taught Me. Just two years later, following reader reviews accusing Clanchy of employing racial stereotypes, his publisher fall her, and all distribution of her catalog of works ceased. Meanwhile, non-copyrighted classic texts are slapped trigger warnings to alert students to the hidden dangers contained in their words.
When all of these censorship tactics fail and a “problematic” author slips through the net, activists plunge to new depths. Harry Potter Author JK Rowling has been bombarded with misogynistic abuse and death threats since speaking out for women’s rights. In 2021, Rowling said she had “received enough death threats to suffocate my house”. These threats must be taken seriously. Three activists went from targeting her online to posting a photo of themselves outside her house, revealing to the world where Rowling’s family residence is. Scariest of all was the death threatt Rowling received after expressing sympathy for Salman Rushdie on Twitter. “Don’t worry, you’re next,” replied a man who had previously tweeted his support for Hadi Matar, Rushdie’s alleged attacker.
Rather than offering her support for Rowling, bestselling novelist Joanne Harris, president of the UK’s Society of Authors, created a Twitter poll. She asked her fellow authors if they had ever received a death threat, with potential responses being: “Yes”, “Hell, yes”, “No, never” and “Show me, damn it”. The lighthearted nature of the poll seemed to imply that Rowling was making a fuss over nothing. After a backlash, Harris deleted the poll, replacing it with one asking the same questions but in a slightly less upbeat tone.
Harris has since said the dispute between her and Rowling is “fabricated”, although the two women have been known to disagree on issues surrounding gender self-identification. But while Rowling, who believes sex is immutable, faces abuse on social media and her books are drawn outlets, Harris, who believes trans women are actually women, continues to hold one of the most influential positions in British publishing.
What should concern everyone is the message the publishing industry sends to young writers: Transgress current orthodoxies and you’re unlikely to ever see your work in print or on bookstore shelves. And if you somehow pull off this feat, no one will stand up for you when the inevitable abuse comes your way. A cowardly reluctance to defend freedom of expression now invades publishing, to the detriment of literature, creativity and reasoned argument.
As for satanic verses: the woke takeover of publishing indeed makes it highly unlikely that such a novel will be published today, at least by a major publishing house. Until the industry claims its allegiance to free speech rather than ideological orthodoxies, readers and writers will suffer.
Photo by Richard Baker/In pictures via Getty Images