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22 September 2022

The Philip Pullman affair shows social media is where good arguments go to die

The author of His Dark Materials has spoken out against “gesture politics” – but he too adds fuel to the outrage machine.

By Johanna Thomas-Corr

Is there some malevolent daemon abroad, cursing Britain’s children’s authors? A pattern seems to be emerging: the closer young readers have clutched a work of imagination to their hearts, the more furious the backlash when its creator turns out to be a complicated, opinionated adult.

First came JK Rowling’s cancellation over her opinions on transphobia. Now Philip Pullman, writer of the beloved His Dark Materials trilogy, seems to be going for pariah status on two fronts: accusing the Society of Authors of “gesture politics” over racial sensitivities on one hand; on another, condemning media transphobia and being accused of being a “raging misogynist”.

Pullman’s gesture politics charge relates to the Kate Clanchy affair of 2021. To briefly recap: this began when a few users of the Goodreads website started to point out what they saw as Clanchy’s troubling use of racial and ableist stereotypes in her Orwell Prize-winning book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019). The fallout was not pretty. A distraught Clanchy would ultimately be forced to find a new publisher. Pullman, meanwhile, became one of Clanchy’s best-known defenders, tweeting that those who condemned a book without having read it would “find a comfortable home in Isis or the Taliban”. This did not go down well with the three women of colour who had become Clanchy’s most vocal critics: Monisha Rajesh, Chimene Suleyman and Professor Sunny Singh. A letter signed by 150 writers expressed “outrage” at those (ie Pullman) who used their “power and influence” to “weaponise deeply troubling Islamophobic tropes”.

Pullman’s latest intervention into this “wretched business” (his words) centres on the Society of Authors, effectively a union for writers, of which Pullman was the president until March this year. In a recent letter to the society’s council seen by Private Eye, Pullman stresses that he had resigned over the Clanchy affair. “I thought the attacks were largely unfair, and that she was being vilified, and I said so. Instead of looking at the issue calmly, the Society (through the management committee and its chair) immediately adopted a position of self-righteous neutrality.” The chair in question is Joanne Harris, author of the 1999 bestseller Chocolat as well as some 170,000 tweets – including a bad taste death-threat joke that she subsequently deleted. Pullman accused the society of abandoning its high-minded purpose of defending authors and their right to write what they please. “I realised that I would not be free to express my personal opinions as long as I remained president. That being the case, with great regret and after long consideration I chose to stand down.” He cited the fact that he was “invited” to undergo race awareness training as a contributing factor to his decision.

[See also: Catherine Called Birdy: The secret diary of a medieval teen]  

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Like Harris, Pullman is one of those authors who cannot resist a spicy tweet. But, aside from his crankiness, he is rarely predictable, which is perhaps why he provokes such outrage and confusion. “Binary absolutism is deadly,” he tweeted recently. “It leads to the death of the heart, the death of the imagination, the death of the soul.” He has defended Rowling from her would-be lynchers. He has also incurred the wrath of Rowling’s defenders by attacking common transphobic media tropes.

Now, you might say he’s indulging in precisely the sort of “gesture politics” of which he accuses the Society of Authors. You might also note he has a book out this month. But isn’t all politics on social media essentially gesture politics? It’s not as if anybody is fine-tuning government policy on there.

The common thread in Pullman’s output is his belief in freedom of speech. For him, this is first principles stuff – precisely what a society that acts in the interests of authors should be defending. Pullman’s position is a valid one – indeed, in the wake of the recent attack on Salman Rushdie, defending authors’ right to freedom of expression seems a particularly urgent cause. The Society of Authors’ website quotes George Orwell – “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – and states that it works to protect this “fundamental human right”. 

But there is the question of whether someone should be allowed to say something, and then there is the rather more difficult question of who benefits from them saying it. What will this intervention change? Does this opinion need to be shared? Is this tweet necessary? Isn’t the best thing about being a hugely successful writer that you don’t have to do this stuff?

But that is the curse of social media. An author capable of a unique, subtle, nuanced feat of imagination that enchants millions is bewitched by a machine into reproducing opinions that, when it comes down to it, are indistinguishable from those of millions of other people. You can feel Pullman raging against this even as he tweets – he is a fly on a spider’s web. 

Note how Britain’s best-selling children’s author, David Walliams, only has an official account “run by his team”. If cancel culture truly existed, you’d think it would come for the person who created Little Britain, which was full of racist, ableist, homophobic, classist and misogynist stereotypes. But Walliams has found a way to resist telling us what he thinks of the Daily Mail front page or the Northern Ireland Protocol. The only winning move is not to play the game.

[See also: AN Wilson: the assembly-line intellectual

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