According to Wikipedia, that most questionable but oh-so-convenient source of information, Roxane Gay is – among other things – “an American feminist writer, professor, editor and commentator … associate professor of English at Purdue University, [and] contributing opinion writer at The New York Times ...”
She is also, apparently, a champion for writers who want to stand up for their beliefs, even in the dog-eat-dog world of publishing.
Gay is perhaps best known for her NYT bestselling essay collection, Bad Feminist. But, she came across many new readers’ radar (mine included) in January when she pulled her upcoming book, How To Be Heard, from Simon & Schuster after learning that the company’s TED imprint, Threshold, had also signed to publish Milo Yiannopoulos’ book, Dangerous.
For those not familiar with Yiannopoulos, he is described in a related Washington Post article as a, “Greek-born, British writer who thrives on the publicity he generates by being outrageous. His incendiary and racist remarks about “Ghostbusters” actress and Saturday Night Live comedian Leslie Jones on Twitter got him permanently banned from the platform in July 2016.” They also note that, “His caustic viewpoints on women, minorities, Muslims and immigrants have made Yiannopoulos a de-facto mouthpiece for the ‘alt-right’ movement, short for alternative right, a small, far-right movement that seeks a whites-only state.”
In a January statement to Buzzfeed, Gay explained her stance and how it was her “putting my money where my mouth is.”
And to be clear, this isn’t about censorship. Milo has every right to say what he wants to say, however distasteful I and many others find it to be. He doesn’t have a right to have a book published by a major publisher but he has, in some bizarre twist of fate, been afforded that privilege. So be it. I’m not interested in doing business with a publisher willing to grant him that privilege. I am also fortunate enough to be in a position to make this decision. I recognize that other writers aren’t and understand that completely.
Yesterday, Simon & Schuster cancelled Yiannopoulos’ book deal. The publisher reportedly made the decision in response to statements Yiannopoulos made about pedophilia on a conservative radio talk show.
Gay posted a reaction to the publisher’s change of heart on her Tumblr:
In canceling Milo’s book contract, Simon & Schuster made a business decision the same way they made a business decision when they decided to publish that man in the first place. When his comments about pedophilia/pederasty came to light, Simon & Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally “do the right thing” and now we know where their threshold, pun intended, lies. They were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies. They were fine with his transphobia, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. They were fine with how he encourages his followers to harass women and people of color and transgender people online. Let me assure you, as someone who endured a bit of that harassment, it is breathtaking in its scope, intensity, and cruelty but hey, we must protect the freedom of speech. Certainly, Simon & Schuster was not alone in what they were willing to tolerate. A great many people were perfectly comfortable with the targets of Milo’s hateful attention until that attention hit too close to home.
.I share this story because I think there are several things we can learn from it and, specifically, from Gay’s words and actions.
First of all, freedom of speech must exist for everyone, even those whose opinions we find abhorrent. Censorship is not advisable as a solution because silencing any voice opens the door to silencing all voices. (Personally, I wish that more individuals and news institutions would stop providing free press and air time to people like Yiannopoulos, but that is – perhaps – an opinion for a different post.) We can, however, find other ways to condemn and cripple hate speech and oppression in all its forms. Gay’s choice to pull her book from the publisher was a powerful way for her to a) exercise her will in the situation, and b) bring wider attention to the story.
I also think there is something important about how far Yiannopoulos had to go before Simon & Schuster drew the line. I haven’t had time to fully digest what it means that, as Gay points out in her Tumblr post, the publisher was willing to look past all kinds of offensive opinions until pedophilia was in play. It makes me think of the quote from Martin Niemöller that begins, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.”
Finally, I believe that artists – including writers – must very often play the role of canaries in the coal mine. While it is not mandatory that every creative endeavor carry the weight of political opinion, I believe history will show us again and again that artists are often the first line of defense against forces of oppression, in all their hideous forms.
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content writer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian arts, and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. In addition to my bi-weekly weekday posts, you can also check out my Saturday Edition and Sunday Shareworthy archives. Off the blog, please introduce yourself on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.
This post originally appeared on the Live to Write – Write to Live blog.