I've recently unfollowed some lovely people on Twitter. I'd like to explain why.
I am opting out of kidlit Twitter.
I believe that people who anger us are still human beings and deserve to be treated as such. I also believe in the freedom to read.
These are bedrock values to me, and kidlit Twitter does not share them. I've tried to be silent when I see them violated, but it's nearly impossible for me to do so, and it's become clear to me that my speaking up is pointless.
I am aware of the concept of tone policing. What it has come to mean is that there is no such thing as a disproportionate response. So if someone does something dumb or offensive, you should immediately denounce them in the strongest terms possible. To suggest that someone who has inadvertently hurt your feelings deserves whatever vitriol you can muster just feels bizarre to me. I wonder why, if there is no such thing as a disproportionate verbal response, we stop there. Aren't acts of violence justified against people who say offensive things? I've seen people suggest that language is violence. Surely this deserves to be met with actual physical violence. Isn't cutting this option off just a way that the powerful control the powerless?
An aside about power: if you have tons of followers on Twitter and you can mobilize them all to mob someone's mentions and say terrible things about them, you have power, no matter how you identify. Remember when Trump supporters did this to a kidlit author? It was rightly denounced as bullying. Yet when kidlit Twitter does this to one of its own, it's apparently justice. The folks who led the charge will stand triumphant over the inactive or private Twitter account of the offender and proclaim victory.
So: is mobbing someone into silence bullying, or isn't it?
I've said and done my share of offensive and stupid things in my life. I was and am a work in progress, and I've stumbled a lot. My friend Betsy recently told me about some appallingly misogynistic things I said in high school. I had completely forgotten ever saying these things, and I was ashamed. (Note to men who were not popular with the ladies in high school: you may want to check in with your female friends from that era to find out what you were actually like. This may cause you to revise your "I was just a nice guy who was ignored by girls who liked assholes" narrative.)
Maybe you've never said anything dumb or offensive. Maybe you've never hurt anyone's feelings intentionally or unintentionally. But I have, and it's hard for me to condemn people as less than me because they have too. This doesn't mean ignoring or enabling such things. But it means remembering that the person who did them is, like me, a flawed human with the capacity to learn. To assume otherwise is deny their humanity.
When someone spots something hurtful or harmful in a book, the conversation jumps quickly to "this publisher should pull the book." In other words, if I deem something offensive, no one should have the ability to read it. "This book sucks" is legitimate criticism. "Pull the book" is not. I believe that literature, and indeed all art, has to have the freedom to be offensive, stupid, and dangerous.
Speak gets challenged in a single school district, and we spring into action to battle censorship even though anyone can still find and read the book. When We Was Fierce is apparently racist, and thanks to kidlit Twitter, the publisher pulled the book, it's in legal limbo, and no one can read it. Maybe it's as terrible as everyone says. I'd like to be able to make that decision for myself, but I can't.
Everyone who wants to ban a work of art believes they are doing the right thing. The people who challenge Speak legitimately believe that book poses a threat to their children, that it's so out of step with their values that it shouldn't be read. Kidlit Twitter is creating a playbook for how to censor literature, and if the forces of fascism are paying attention, they'll use the same playbook to censor something they believe is offensive to their values. They will rightly be able to point to kidlit Twitter's "successes" as precedent that when a group of people believes a book to be dangerous, nobody should be allowed to read it.
I have seen people say that they are acting on behalf of children, or fighting the good fight for diversity, or whatever, but the ginned-up nature of many of the controversies that define kidlit Twitter makes me suspect that something else is going on. A six-month-old review in a journal very few people read is suddenly urgent? A book that's two months old with fewer than 20 Amazon reviews has already died on the vine. Why is it suddenly so dangerous that it must be censored? No, these controversies are about the exercise of power more than anything else. Which is to be expected when humans are involved, but the hypocrisy and sanctimony that attend this behavior really bother me.
Because the atmosphere of fear that prevails in the kidlit "community" right now is ultimately harmful to art. Writers will be afraid to take chances lest they get Twitter mobbed. Will agents and publishers take a chance on a book that addresses important issues but might be controversial? Or will they go for that series about the fairy princess assassin who can't choose between the fae prince she's destined for and the roguish human she's been assigned to kill? (Just came up with that. I should totally go into book packaging.)
Kidlit Twitter is a toxic place. It's bad for my emotional health. It's bad to waste time on contrived controversy when the country is sliding into fascism and I need to figure out meaningful ways to resist. And it's bad for art to have the fear of an angry mob in your head all the time.
I'm posting this to Twitter so that people I unfollowed who I care about will see it, but I won't be discussing it there. I've also closed comments on this post. If you are a friend and want to talk to me about this, email or DM me. If you want to point out how wrong and evil I am, please do so without mobbing my mentions. You've already won: I won't be participating in any more online conversations about literature except to post reviews of books I've read on Goodreads.
I don't think I'll change anyone's mind with this, but, like I said, it's hard for me to shut up. But now I will. Goodbye and good luck.