News that Salman Rushdie had been stabbed on stage at a New York literary festival shocked the world. It prompted 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 ask whether The Satanic Verses, his 1988 novel accused of blasphemy against Islam, could even be published today.
It’s not an unreasonable question. Attitudes toward free speech, blasphemy, and Islam have all changed considerably over the last three decades. Horrific crimes such as the murder of journalists at the French publication Charlie Hebdo in 2015 still prompt support for press freedom. But it took precisely two days for some to suggest that #JeSuisCharlie solidarity would “play into the hands of the racists and fascists.” Rare is the defense of free speech that comes without caveats: free speech, but not for racists or Islamophobes; but not without consequences; but not the liberty to say things that I, personally, find offensive.
The upshot is that many who work in journalism, universities, or publishing are now more concerned to avoid offending than to test the limits of what can be said. In this context, arguing for free speech often arouses suspicion. Defenders are said to be aligned with racists, transphobes, deplorables. And no one wants that. Rather than publish and be damned, the message is to self-censor in line with fashionable woke values, or risk being cancelled. How has this happened?
Back 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. By 2016, magazines were carrying lists of the “young and woke” featuring “celebrities who lead by example.” They profiled “15 Sexy Celebs Who Get Even Hotter Once You Realize How Woke They Are” and gave us “The Ultimate Guide to Woke Celebrity Bros.”
As woke gained in popularity, its definition narrowed. From challenging injustice in general, it has come to mean adopting a particular political stance. To be woke today is to view the world through an identitarian lens. People are not seen as individuals but as group members, with each group allotted a place in a hierarchy of privilege and oppression. Acknowledging this “intersectionality” demands that, rather than being colorblind, we focus on skin color and judge people accordingly. New orthodoxies emerge: racism is systemically embedded within the psyche of white people; gender floats free of biology. Challenging these orthodoxies is an act of heresy, a modern-day form of blasphemy. At the same time, those now policing woke disown the label. Woke exists only in the imagination of old, white men, they claim.
Yet, as I explore in my new book, How Woke Won, despite few activists, organized groups, or political parties rallying around the word “woke,” the values associated with the term have come to dominate every aspect of society, from schools and universities to police, business, health care, and the judiciary. The creative industries—museums and art galleries, journalism and publishing—have proved particularly fertile ground for cultivating woke values. This has not happened overnight but over the course of several decades. And it has not happened because of the merits of woke thinking but because institutions, devoid of any intrinsic sense of purpose, were unable or unwilling to defend liberal values.
The fatwa against Rushdie was issued in 1989 by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran. In 2022, the fatwa’s ethos seems contemporary with Western attitudes. Woke thinking asserts that some identity groups are more vulnerable than others as a result of oppression, even as it asserts that words are not just powerful, but equivalent to actual violence. To paraphrase one popular academic text, words can wound. According to this way of thinking, failing to use the correct pronouns for a transgender person is not just a slip of the tongue, or a statement of biological fact, but an invalidation of the person’s identity and a denial of his or her right to exist. The coming together of these two ideas—that people are vulnerable to offense and that words wound—drives censorship. Tragically, it can justify in the minds of a small number of warped individuals acts of murderous violence.
Such beliefs have an impact on every aspect of the publishing industry. The first task facing any author is to secure a book contract. This is far 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 contracts have been signed. Those lucky enough to get to the stage of submitting a manuscript may find that they are expected to work with a sensitivity reader—in effect, a second editor, whose role is to point out stereotypes and flag any words or phrases likely to cause offense so that they can be altered or removed.
Even a proven capacity to produce international best sellers does not guarantee you a smooth ride through the publishing process. In November 2020, employees at Penguin Random House Canada complained about having to work on Jordan Peterson’s 12 More Rules for Life. According to a report in Vice: “Another employee said ‘people were crying in the meeting about how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives.’ They said one co-worker discussed how Peterson had radicalized their father and another talked about how publishing the book will negatively affect their non-binary friend.” In June of this year, Amazon employees staged a “die-in” protest to try and get the online retailer to stop selling what protesters called “anti-trans” books. They no doubt wanted Amazon to emulate Target, which had pulled Abigail Shrier’s searing book, Irreversible Damage, from its shelves following complaints from transgender activists.
Books are no longer safe from woke censorship even when long in the public domain. In 2020, author and teacher Kate Clanchy won the prestigious Orwell Prize for her memoir Some Kids I Taught And What They Taught Me. Just two years later, following reader reviews accusing Clanchy of employing racial stereotypes, her publisher dropped her, and all distribution of her back catalogue of works ceased. Meanwhile, classic texts out of copyright get slapped with trigger warnings to alert students to hidden dangers contained in their words.
When all these censorious tactics fail, and a “problematic” author slips through the net, campaigners plummet to new depths. Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling has been bombarded with misogynistic abuse and death threats since speaking out in defense of women’s rights. In 2021, Rowling said that she had “received enough death threats to paper my home.” These threats should be taken seriously. Three activists moved from targeting her online to posting a photo of themselves outside her house, in the process revealing to the world the whereabouts of Rowling’s family residence. Most chilling of all was the death threat Rowling received after expressing her sympathy for Salman Rushdie on Twitter. “Don’t worry, you are next,” replied a man who had previously tweeted his support for Hadi Matar, Rushdie’s alleged attacker.
Rather than offering support to Rowling, best-selling novelist Joanne Harris, chair of the U.K.’s Society of Authors, created a Twitter poll. She asked her fellow authors if they had ever received a death threat, with potential answers being: “Yes,” “Hell, yes,” “No, never,” and “Show me, dammit.” The lighthearted nature of the poll seemed to imply that Rowling was making a fuss over nothing. After a backlash, Harris deleted the poll, only to replace it with one asking the same questions but in a slightly less jaunty tone.
Harris has since said that the dispute between her and Rowling is “fabricated,” though the two women are known to disagree on issues surrounding gender self-identification. But whereas Rowling, who believes that sex is immutable, faces social media abuse and her books being pulled from shops, 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 that the publishing industry is sending to young writers: transgress against the current orthodoxies and you are unlikely ever to see your work in print or on bookshop shelves. And if, somehow, you manage that feat, no one will defend you when the inevitable abuse comes your way. A cowardly reluctance to stand up for free speech now pervades publishing, to the detriment of literature, creativity, and reasoned argument.
As for The Satanic Verses: the woke takeover of publishing indeed makes it highly unlikely that such a novel would be published today, at least by a major imprint. Until the industry reclaims its allegiance to free speech over ideological orthodoxies, readers and writers will suffer.
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