There was a time when publishers had to battle with external forces for their right to publish controversial authors. It was censorious politicians and moralistic campaigners who marshalled state power and boycotts to try to ensure that allegedly subversive or risqué material never saw the light of day.
No longer. Today, it seems, it is often those within the publishing industry itself who seem intent on making sure that this or that ‘filth’ be banned. We’ve gone from the blue-rinse brigade to the blue-hair brigade, but the effect is still the same deadening intolerance.
Witness the goings on at Penguin Random House Canada, where several staff members have confronted management over its decision to publish a new book by controversial Canadian psychologist / self-help guru Jordan Peterson, called Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life.
According to Vice, a ‘townhall’ meeting was held to discuss staffers’ concerns. Many of them seem to have taken the decision to publish the follow-up to Peterson’s blockbuster 12 Rules for Life incredibly personally. Some cried as they discussed ‘how Jordan Peterson has affected their lives.’
As is almost always the case these days, what the heretic in question is being accused of is complete nonsense. One ‘junior employee’ dubbed him an ‘icon of hate speech and transphobia’, when all Peterson has actually done is oppose censorship and the enforced use of trans pronouns.
But then again today’s regressive progressives rarely bother to read the authors they condemn. The same staff member called the publication of Peterson an outrage ‘regardless of the content of the book’. Another improbably claimed Peterson had ‘radicalised their father’ with his self-help advice.
This isn’t the only time recently that a publishing house has been plunged into civil war over allegedly ‘hateful’ authors. In June it was revealed that staff in the children’s department at Hachette were refusing to work on a title by JK Rowling, because of her views on gender identity.
In the world of journalism, heads have rolled following revolts from younger and woker staff. The New York Times’ opinion editor was forced out this year for publishing an op-ed by a sitting senator, calling for the army to be used to quell rioting in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.
A generation of staff is emerging within previously liberal institutions, who think being confronted with opinions they disagree with is tantamount to violence; who act, when a writer they dislike is signed by their firm, as if management had just hired a registered, unreformed sex offender.
At times like this, we usually reach for our Mill and our Milton and say that the best way to confront ideas you dislike is through debate and criticism, and that your ideas emerge stronger when you engage with those of others. All of which is completely true, and clearly needs to be restated.
But before that it’s also worth making a simpler point: that the behaviour we’ve seen at Penguin Random House and elsewhere is babyish and pathetic. If these people cannot deal with the existence of views different to their own, they probably shouldn’t work in publishing. Or leave the house.
Too often polite society tries to placate this unhinged illiberalism, treating it as misguided but trying to be right. But this worldview is not only authoritarian, it is also risible, and claims that a kooky psychologist’s self-help book is basically Mein Kampf should be met with the derision they deserve.
What’s more, while woke staffers should be free to air their grievances with management, the climate they are creating is a menace to the free speech of everyone else. Big-ticket authors can look after themselves, but the same isn’t true for those writers and workers further down the pecking order.
For the sake of free speech, liberal institutions – and everyone else, for that matter – need to grow some backbone, and refuse to indulge the overgrown infants in their midst.