Saturday, February 16, 2019

"Poetic Injustice and Performative Outrage" in QUILLETTE

My colleague Clint Margrave (author of THE EARLY DEATH OF MEN and SALUTE THE WRECKAGE) has just published an important new article entitled "Poetic Injustice and Performative Outrage" in Quillette.  I highly recommend reading the entire piece.  What follows is a choice excerpt....

Slavoj Žižek argues that the totalitarian elements of modern political correctness are much more difficult to resist than the unambiguous totalitarianism of the past. Instead of simply dictating what a person can and can’t do or say, political correctness uses emotional coercion to leverage feelings of guilt and shame. We are now supposed to care more about the collective “feelings” of the community than the individual artist or artwork. A work no longer speaks for itself, but for a community, and an artist’s whole public persona—how virtuous they are, how they behaved on a Saturday night, their correct (or incorrect) political beliefs or opinions, and so on—can all either hurt or help that community. This seems like a lot to ask of a writer just to remain published in a magazine that probably didn’t even pay them.
I asked Joanna Valente, publisher of Yes, Poetry magazine, if it should be a publisher’s business what a writer does outside of their interaction with that publisher. “I wouldn’t say it’s a publisher’s ‘business’ to know—and publishers aren’t private investigators and do have lives of their own (and often, day jobs, since most editors don’t edit full-time). However, I do think if someone’s behavior becomes a public concern, and it does violate ethical, safety, moral, and/or legal matters, then it should be of concern.”
No doubt Valente and the editors at cahoodaloodaling have good intentions. But these good intentions seem to be very shortsighted. Anyone who has ever silenced someone has done so under the guise of “public concern.” And, while libel is a legitimate concern for a publisher and a condition (along with personal attacks and by request of the author) under which even [Timothy] Green [editor of Rattle] says he would “de-publish” a poem, none of these considerations were at issue in the cases of Rachel Custer or Anders Carlson-Wee. Call it performance or moral panic, but a small but powerful and vocal minority of community members is seizing control of the message—any breach of orthodoxy marks you an apostate or a blasphemer, and then it’s off to the poetry gulags.
They even have their own informers—members of the community who dedicate themselves to rooting out transgressive views and behavior so they can report it to the publisher [emphasis added--RG]. “I was so excited to be published in The Journal,” says Custer, “which puts out such lovely work, and then I was just heartbroken to have that work removed.” Ohio State University’s esteemed literary magazine took down her poem after a few members of the poetry community emailed the magazine alleging Custer was a “racist, an Islamophobe,” and—perhaps the strangest allegation of all—that she, “ridiculed dead children.” “Just all kinds of insane allegations,” says Custer. “The student editor removed my work without ever talking to me about the allegations, and never even told me the work was taken down. I think I found out when I was updating my personal website.” The editor told her the problem wasn’t her poem or its contents, but her personal opinions as expressed by social media.
“If someone reaches out to a publisher,” says Valente, “I think the publisher, for instance, should take what that person says seriously and act in a way they see fit. No one can tell a publisher what to do, but I do think at the very least acknowledging what a person says is important, and ultimately hopefully they make a decision that ensures the integrity of their magazine and the safety of their audience.”
Wanting to protect one’s staff from, for instance, personal harassment is obviously understandable. But the “safety of their audience”? Whoever said art was safe? The idea of safety is prevalent throughout the poetry community right now—there is even a hashtag called #saferlit. But safety from what, exactly? From a poem that might offend someone’s sensibilities? From an idea someone else might not agree with? To describe protection from ideas, art, or words as “safety” is a sinister misuse of language, and it has always been the righteous excuse offered in justification of censorship. “If a work is harming others, and taking away someone’s humanity, then I think it’s ethical to remove the work, because it’s not helping anyone, and just promoting dangerous thought that has led many countries to violent wars and aggressions,” says Valente. 
This kind of reasoning may sound like a kinder and more empathetic kind of censorship, but protecting our own best interests has always been the benevolent justification for the banning or burning of books. And in today’s feverish and intolerant cultural climate, a “dangerous thought” may simply be a “thought” with which the self-appointed censor disagrees. Too much protection makes a population naïve. Pushing boundaries is practically a condition for creating art, and artists have either been rewarded or punished for pushing the limits of acceptability and challenging the voices of cultural or political authority, depending on the political temperature of the time. And that is why artistic censorship is always high on the list of priorities of totalitarian regimes.
To read Margrave's article in its entirety, click HERE.

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