Or Janice’s Goats
***Long Read for Twixt Week***
I used to think I lived in a free country – born in the UK in the 1960s, it was a long time before I questioned the idea. Even when I discovered it wasn’t entirely true, I was still aware that as countries went, our country in the 20th century was relatively good on freedom of expression and freedom of speech.
My but it’s changed, and not in a good way. Politically, we now have pressures on our freedoms from both right and left, each in their own way, and for their own reasons. Can you tell which is which? Do you judge both varieties in the same way? You might like to test your attitude to one or two of these: (or skip straight on to ‘a failed workshop’ below, if you already know what I mean).
The first thing is to see that we are – understandably – very confused. Three examples from my direct experience…
A failed workshop
Long ago, before covid, I was at a literary festival (no wait – let me think – this matters – it was 12 years ago) I ran a workshop on freedom of expression. I did it because I’d recently published a book which I thought might be controversial. It was about child abuse, and incest, and other nasty things – but the arena in which these things played out was a small-town Christian community so when we published, I was kind of waiting for complaints.
I got complaints. What surprised me was that they weren’t about religion. They were accusing the writer of appropriation because she had a main character who was lesbian. It was only a handful of complaints, and every single one backed off when I said to them ‘do you know the author? Why do you think she’s not a lesbian?’
So, I figured, the complaints were ideological so, when I was asked to set up a series of festival workshops on issues relevant to writers, I decided I wanted to know what writers thought they could or couldn’t express. I set out to explore our writing and publishing world in search of taboos, and find out what the workshoppers thought could not be set down in print. The workshop was a flop. None of the attendees could think of any taboos. They were utterly sure that artists of all varieties could and should say anything they want to. I had to prompt them to get a grudging agreement that you probably shouldn’t name living characters and slander them.
I admit I concluded they mostly weren’t professional writers or else they weren’t being honest, but just think how different that workshop would be in 2021. The complainers about that probably-not-a-lesbian author were a small minority on the other end of email exchanges, no-doubt forerunners of the post-modernist tide demanding ‘authenticity’.
I think attempting authenticity is a good idea when, for example, a film director looks for black people to play black parts, disabled people to play disabled parts and so on – but to say that authors are only allowed to write about people like them – that fiction authors are only allowed to use their real life standpoint – is a step too far for me. As Ursula le Guin put it, ‘it’s fiction. We make stuff up.’
A Mantel Piece
In Hilary Mantel’s collection of her journalistic writings, she includes an essay on the censorship she experienced around her when living in Jeddah. Writing in 1989, she is explaining the concept of censorship, on behalf of a UK readership whom she assumes have not heard of such things. She gives examples: my favourite was the scouring of the recipes on the back of packets of imported sauce mixes, in order to strike out (and I quote) ‘that dreadful word, “pork”’. Mantel explains that
…you cannot abolish the concept of pork from the world, but if you are assiduous you can unsay the word; if your felt tips are busy enough, and numerous enough, you can take away its name and thus gradually take away its substance, leaving it a queasy, nameless concept washing around in the minds of unbelievers, a meat which will gradually lose its existence because there is no way to talk about it.
Does that situation sound familiar to you at all? She then moves on to talk about the UK’s reaction to the Rushdie affair. In case you’re not old enough to know, the Ayatollah of Iran condemned a book Rushdie wrote, called The Satanic Verses – in fact, he went so far as to condemn Rushdie himself, calling a fatwa against both Rushdie and his publishers.
Mantel observes that some authors and commentators in the UK responded by asking whether the book was, in fact, bad form in some way. Mantel comments, ‘politeness may be the ruin of the West’. She serves up a typically English (ie, devastatingly polite) verdict on those in the UK who ‘cast doubt on Rushdie’s integrity’ or called for ‘the withdrawal of the book’.
‘Perhaps,’ she writes, ‘it is understandable that the authors of children’s books and light social comedies should decline to defend The Satanic Verses. Their freedom of expression is not at issue.’
I cheer on Mantel’s view here. The authors she describes are an example of the ‘sheep’ of our society. Rather like the attendees of that workshop I ran, they probably don’t even tell themselves about self-censorship, so can’t possibly tell anyone else. In more recent years, in publishing particularly, we have seen what I consider to be an extremely craven backing away from any colleague who has been accused of anything that people seem to fear might ‘rub off’. The consequence is the enabling of mass bullying, which those authors appear to manage not to notice.
In recent years many women, particularly if they’ve been active in the trade union movement or party politics, have had much to say on the pressures being applied over how people talk about sex and gender. I for one have expended a lot of energy defending the vocabulary women need to describe our political and social experience, and to maintain safeguarding boundaries. Our statements on the topic are often met with determined efforts at making us stop it.
I did suggest to my sisters at one point that perhaps we should concede the whole pronoun thing – I’ve always been of the opinion that a gender-neutral pronoun would be a useful addition to our language – I suggested it because I thought it was more important that we get ‘female’ and ‘woman’, and the language of childbirth clear. (Not just because of the women’s rights v trans rights debate but it really is still very hard for people like midwives and doulas to converse on social media, because of the tendency of the sites to assume naming women’s body parts can only equal pornography).
But I have changed my mind. ‘Misgendering’ is being treated as though it was a crime. It has taken several court cases to assert that using ‘wrong’ pronouns is not a crime. (See Maya Forstater and Harry Miller ) The assumption that we are morally obliged to apply people’s required pronouns when talking about them is a whole lot different to politely referring to people according to their wishes when talking to them. The latter is often useful and usually harmless. The former is accepting censorship.
Fortunately, I believe, the refusal of ‘required pronouns’ has been more widespread amongst the young than many suppose. A recent survey reported in ‘Prospect’ magazine (‘Gen Z explained’ in winter special 2022) states that 75% of ‘Gen Z’ respondents would agree to a designated pronoun for someone – but these are university students. I’d put it at less than half if taking a sample from secondary school students I’ve mixed with lately.
I’m less concerned about that though, now we’ve established it is NOT a matter for criminal law – I will make my own decisions when presented with pronoun requirements, because I know can. We still need to push back against workplace and judicial bullying on the issue, though. Women in prison can find themselves punished for ‘misgendering’, and that report about ‘Gen Z’ somehow managed to have a whole section on attitudes to gender, identity and sexuality without using the word ‘sex’. It suggests to me that ‘sex’ has become a ‘queasy, nameless concept’ for the report’s authors (see ‘pork’ above). It suggests serious bullying has led to serious self-censorship.
Authoritarianism, bigotry and bullies
I reject censorship and compelled speech, especially when enforced by police officers and employers because it’s directly against our beleaguered human rights. I spoke to a woman recently who is considered one of the ‘extremists’ in the women’s rights v trans rights situation. What makes her ‘extreme’ is her practice of calling a male a male, however they ‘identify’. Speaking to her, I found her view both reasonable and useful. Many women struggle with the current constraints, especially if they have been abused, or need to express safeguarding concerns about a sex-related issue. This ‘extremist’ woman told me she had seen such relief on the faces of women hearing her forthright words. They needed a model of someone calmly and unwaveringly expressing what they could see but not say. She considers her stance far from extreme, she considers it a kindness and a necessity.
I think she’s absolutely right and, as long as no-one starts laying down the law about such situations, your decision about words you say is just fine, whatever it is. I suggest being diplomatic when it seems right to you, and being forthright when you see a need.
I reject ‘cancel culture’. I consider it anti-fa gone mad. Young people have picked up on the techniques their elders have used to contain genuinely violent fascist movements, and a noisy minority are adding rowdy bully-tactics to boycott actions such as were applied so successfully against apartheid South Africa, in attempts to put a stop to anything they happen to disagree with.
The inability to accept others having meetings, giving lectures or writing books you disagree with is called ‘bigotry’. I don’t know where this idea got turned on its head but bigotry means intolerance of others’ views. Those militant youngsters and their refuse-to-grow-up grey-haired apologists are bigots, and bigotry leads to bullying.
Decency and respect
I think the vital point which gets missed, as our country sinks into ever more authoritarian attitudes, is that you don’t need laws, or rules, or bullies, to maintain decent social behaviour. As an editor and a publisher, I was a ferocious defender of the author’s right to lay down whatever words and ideas they needed to but I would from time to time go back to authors and question what I considered to be unnecessary or harmful passages.
I abhorred a large proportion of what I saw on telly when I was a kid, because, long before I had the vocabulary to express the idea, I found both news and entertainment were regularly racist, sexist, classist and gratuitously violent and sensational. Many of the things I abhorred are now actually removed from viewing schedules, because decency has prevailed. At least I thought it had. I hope it was decency, because if it was enforced censorship, I disapprove. I refer you to Eveline Beatrice Hall: I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
A decent society does not encourage gratuitous vulgarity and abusiveness, nor does it allow vulnerable minorities to become scapegoats or the habitual butt of jokes. We should be sensitive to how our national conversations are going. I actually left out a line in one of my quotes from Hilary Mantel above because I thought, on its own, published in 2021 as opposed to when she wrote her piece, it would look unnecessarily critical of Muslim culture as a whole. There is a nasty tendency for that in our society at the moment, therefore decency requires avoiding anything that appears to support that tendency unless that something is 100% accurate and necessary. (Please pay attention – I’m NOT saying Mantel said anything wrong. Don’t think of ‘cancelling’ her!)
You can’t easily made decisions like those I make as an editor in an authoritarian country full of bullies. That’s why defending freedom of expression is vital.
Now, if you don’t know why I’ve called this piece ‘Janice’s Goats’ but you were polite enough to read it anyway, this would be a great time for you to read Janice Turner’s article in the Times, 24th Dec 2021. Here’s a link.
Oh and one more thing…
Just in case I haven’t convinced you, neither official censorship nor mob-attempts at cancel culture work. Why is that…?