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Opinion

Censored! Who needs a totalitarian state when zealous, woke workers ensure that books with ‘invalid opinions’ never get an airing?

The publishing industry is encouraging grass roots censorship and increasingly giving in to employees who demand that certain views should never be able to be expressed – especially those involving trans issues.

It looks like publishing is fast becoming a career choice for ambitious would-be censors. The most aspiring and aggressive wing of the grass-roots censorship movement is the lobby policing publications dealing with trans-related issues. Recently a group of individuals from across the publishing industry associated with this lobby wrote a letter to The Bookseller demanding the censoring of books that it deems unfavourable to its cause.

The main point of the letter is to claim that trans culture cannot be a subject of debate and that publishers should prevent opinions that run counter to it from being published. It states:

“Transphobia is still perfectly acceptable in the British book industry. Our industry excuses it, says that to view transgender individuals as having less than full human rights is OK and an opinion as valid as others. Our industry is still very comfortable about giving this form of prejudice a powerful platform. We need to step away from the paradigm that all opinions are equally valid.”

The demand to reject the paradigm that all opinions are valid is a roundabout way of saying that ‘invalid’ opinions can be legitimately censored and authors who hold such views should be cancelled and silenced.

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Calls for censorship by freelance inquisitors working in publishing have also been busy in the United States. Employees at Simon & Schuster recently filed a petition insisting that the publisher sever its ties with writers associated with the Trump administration. The petition, signed by 216 employees, gained the support of over 3,500 external supporters, including well-known black writers such as the two-time winner of the National Book Award for Fiction, Jesmyn Ward.

When well-known writers join the queue of enthusiastic censors, it becomes evident that American literary culture is in trouble. 

One of the targets of the Simon & Schuster inquisitors is a two-book deal that the company signed with former Vice-President Mike Pence. Since they believe that Pence’s opinions are not as valid as theirs, shutting down one of the leading voices of the Republican Party is a public service to society. 

One of the most disturbing features of the inquisitorial movement in the publishing industry is the casual manner with which it seeks to corrupt the ideals of tolerance and free speech. 

It is worth noting that the letter sent to The Bookseller is titled ‘The Paradox of Tolerance’. Since it rejects tolerance for views with which it disagrees – it states, “it is clearly not appropriate to say simply ‘everyone is entitled to their opinion’” – it should be titled ‘The Case for Intolerance’!

The hypocrisy of the supporters of censorship in publishing was highlighted in June 2020, by a group called Pride in Publishing. It wrote a circular, ‘Let’s clarify what free speech is and is not: An open letter to the industry from Pride in Publishing’. The aim of this letter was to support employees at Hachette Children’s Books who objected to working on JK Rowling’s latest book. Rowling – the author of the Harry Potter series – had in these employees’ opinion committed the unpardonable sin of refusing to accept the definition of sex and gender promoted by trans activists.

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The letter stated: “Let’s clarify what free speech is and is not. Free speech does not entitle an author to a publishing contract. But it does protect the right of a worker to raise the alarm when they’re asked to participate in something that can cause them or someone else harm or trauma. Transphobic authors are not a protected group. Trans and non-binary people are.”

In British law, those using words that express hostility towards so-called protected groups with protected characteristics – such as race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender status and disability – can be charged with a hate crime. The implication of Pride in Publishing’s statement is that the right to exercise free speech is qualified in circumstances when it is directed at a protected group. This letter also highlights what has become one of the most distinctive features of 21st century linguistic policing – the diseasing of free speech.

In effect, the implication of the Pride in Publishing statement is that Rowling’s book represents a threat to the safety and mental health of the trans and non-binary people working at Hachette. It states that “employees should never have to work on content which is detrimental to their mental health or which causes them unnecessary turmoil.” This sentiment echoes the widely held view which insists that verbal and published communications are a potential hazard to people’s well-being and therefore need to be regulated to protect certain groups from offense, psychological trauma, and mental health problems. 

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This medicalisation of free speech, leading to its diseasing, has become one of the most effective arguments used for undermining freedom of expression.

Activists have, in effect, reinforced their call for censorship by claiming that the publication of invalid opinions by authors who offend them causes them psychological distress and trauma. 

The publishing industry has recognised that its new generation of employees do not expect to work with material that upsets them. David Shelley, the CEO of Hachette, and Clare Alexander, a literary agent, recently told a Lords Committee that new recruits into the publishing industry must be warned that they may have to work on books by people they don’t agree with!

That publishers need to warn employees that they may have to work with authors whose views they dislike highlights the precarious position of free expression and tolerance in this industry.

Once upon a time, publishers were worried about the threat posed by state censorship and feared provoking the wrath of authoritarian censors from above. Today the publishing industry has become complicit in acquiescing to cancel culture, and the pressure to police what the public gets to read comes from below, from a new generation of intolerant employees.

Who needs a totalitarian state when zealous, fragile, and woke workers are determined to ensure that ‘invalid opinions’ never get an airing?

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