Assaults on free expression from the right, particularly in the form of campaigns to remove school library books on complaints from offended parents, have escalated in the last few years and have been widely condemned. Meantime, warnings of parallel threats to expression from zealots on the left have often been dismissed by mainstream opinion as right-wing propaganda.
Now, those concerns are validated by a new report from PEN America, the venerable organization that defends the freedom to write and read, which examines the toxic effects of supposedly progressive online activism on publishing and literary culture.
The report, titled “Booklash” and available at PEN.org, examines the disturbing trend in the last decade of social media campaigns attacking books deemed “problematic” for assorted sins such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and cultural insensitivity. In many cases, these campaigns unfold before the book is published and sometimes before it is even finished — based on brief, usually skewed descriptions of the book and out-of-context quotes that don’t reflect its content.
For instance, bigoted remarks made by characters can be angrily quoted as proof of the book’s bigotry when they are, in fact, meant to expose and criticize bigotry. Ironically, books written from a pro-social justice perspective are very likely to be targeted. Meanwhile, having white characters who challenge racism can be slammed for “white savior” narratives — as in the case of “American Heart,” a 2018 young adult novel whose teenage heroine helped a persecuted Muslim family in a dystopian, authoritarian future America. A white author can be deemed guilty of cultural appropriation simply for writing about black, Hispanic or Asian characters while being white.
Once the outrage cycle has started, it’s hard to stop: Any defense of the book or the author is taken as perpetuating the “harm” it supposedly causes.
It’s easy to dismiss these campaigns as nothing more than vigorous criticism. But, as the report points out, they can add up to massive social pressure that has devastating, silencing effects. Some authors have withdrawn or rewritten their books. In other cases, book tours have been canceled because of harassment and threats; that was the case with “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins, accused of inaccurate though sympathetic portrayal of Mexican migrants. The climate of intimidation also makes agents and publishers reluctant to take on books that could stray into dangerous territory.
“Booklash” stresses that right-wing censorship is far more dangerous because it often has state power behind it, not just internet mobs. Yet one could also argue that right-wing book suppression tends to be far more limited: Getting a book removed from a public school library may deny or limit access for some readers even if it’s available from booksellers, but preventing its publication is far more drastic.
Such quibbles aside, PEN America has done an excellent job of documenting and examining faux-progressive assaults on freedom to write and read. It is particularly strong in its analysis of ways in which claims of trauma and harm have been used to justify restricting any content deemed offensive. The expansive notion of “harm” has, in effect, done great harm to our literary and intellectual climate.
Whether left-wing or right-wing book-snatchers are the bigger menace is ultimately a pointless debate: Those who cherish free expression and free exchange of ideas must oppose both. PEN America has taken an admirable step in affirming that position. Let’s hope more mainstream liberal institutions will follow suit.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a writer for the Bulwark, are her own.