At the end of February the novelist Sir Kazuo Ishiguro expressed concern about the ‘climate of fear’ that has beset many starting writers, inhibiting them from writing what and how they want. There are problems of theme, point of view, and even of form that might prove toxic to explore. They dread that ‘an anonymous lynch mob’ will ‘turn up online and make their lives a misery’. He told the BBC: ‘I very much fear for the younger generation of writers.’
The suddenness and the effective anonymity of the lynch mob frightens, and the fact that it bays with one voice though many in the mob have not seen the provocation that started it off, only its righteous indignation. These collective actions have consequences, yet there is no way to hold anyone, any group, to account. As a result, the Nobel novelist suggests, writers who are new, or nervous, censor themselves as a precaution. They avoid viewpoints that might raise hackles, they shy away from creating characters outside their immediate experience. He remembered how his first novel ‘was written from the point of view of a woman’. A Pale View of Hills (1982) is the story of a Japanese mother trying to come to terms with the suicide of her daughter. The book made a mark and Ishiguro was not censured – four decades ago – for appropriation. Would he be let off so lightly today? Is the fact that his new novel features a female robot an attempt to step around a potential mine?
There are such perils! – of being ‘boycotted’, ‘erased’, ‘cancelled’. It is not only a ‘freedom of speech’ issue but a challenge to thought and imagination themselves. Negative capability has never been such a treacherous exercise, objective correlatives have never seemed so perilously subjective. Courage is urgently needed and in short supply. Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher and rector of the University of Salamanca, is reported to have spoken out at a public meeting. The crowd cheeringly responded to the symbolic cry Viva la Muerte. An old man, his copybook not entirely without blot, he rose to his feet: ‘Sometimes, to remain silent is to lie, since silence can be interpreted as assent.’
At the level of ‘freedom of speech’, the amount of traction a relatively small number of social media Savonarola’s have achieved is striking. And how cowed those who are themselves deeply invested in the social media have become. One contributor to PN Review was subjected to orchestrated social media abuse but, not being a subscriber to Instagram or Facebook, despite the volume and virulence of the action, did not react. The effect was like a military attack waged on a deserted city.
Ishiguro declared, ‘If I shrink back from something it’s because I would doubt my ability to be able to learn enough about it, to write fairly about it. But, you know, I tend to be quite arrogant about my ability to learn about things, if I put my mind to it.’ Such arrogance is earned, not given. ‘To learn enough about it, to write fairly about it’ is an empowering phrase, a sufficient constraint on the writer who is creating, or essaying, or satirising.
On 9 February, Brian Ferguson reported in the Scotsman that Scottish PEN has spoken out against the ‘culture of fear’ that has developed among Scottish writers as a result of the anti-social perversion of social media, and the ‘chilling effect’ this has had on Scottish writing. There is ‘a need for action to “stem the perpetuation of hatred online” and ensure writers can “express themselves without fear of harassment or violence”.’
It is heartening that PEN has taken up the theme unambiguously, speaking of the ‘sustained online smearing and harassment’ of a Scottish poet. Scotland risked ‘the loss of supportive and welcoming communities and the alienation of writers from readers and each other’. There is certainly wariness among writers to engage with supposedly controversial themes for fear of poking an always primed hornets’ nest. There is safety from impending collective rage only in right-think and silence. Shaming, cancellation, trolling,