Among the enemies of writing, belonging is closely related to fear. It’s strange to say this, but a kind of fear pervades the literary and journalistic worlds I’m familiar with. I don’t mean that editors and writers live in terror of being sent to prison. It’s true that the president calls journalists “enemies of the American people,” and it’s not an easy time to be one, but we’re still free to investigate him. Michael Moore and Robert De Niro can fantasize aloud about punching Donald Trump in the face or hitting him with a bag of excrement, and the only consequence is an online fuss. Nor are Islamist jihadists or white nationalists sticking knives in the backs of poets and philosophers on American city streets. The fear is more subtle and, in a way, more crippling. It’s the fear of moral judgment, public shaming, social ridicule, and ostracism. It’s the fear of landing on the wrong side of whatever group matters to you. An orthodoxy enforced by social pressure can be more powerful than official ideology, because popular outrage has more weight than the party line.
A friend of mine once heard from a New York publisher that his manuscript was unacceptable because it went against a “consensus” on the subject of race. The idea that publishers exist exactly to shatter a consensus, to provoke new thoughts, to make readers uncomfortable and even unhappy—this idea seemed to have gone dormant at the many houses where my friend’s manuscript was running into trouble. Fortunately, one editor remembered why he had gotten into publishing and summoned the courage to sign the book, which found its way to many readers. But the prevailing winds are blowing cold in the opposite direction. Incidents like this, minor but chilling, happen regularly in institutions whose core purpose is to say things well and truly. If an editorial assistant points out that a line in a draft article will probably detonate an explosion on social media, what is her supervisor going to do—risk the blowup, or kill the sentence? Probably the latter. The notion of keeping the sentence because of the risk, to defy the risk, to push the boundaries of free expression just a few millimeters further out—that notion now seems quaint. So the mob has the final edit.