Back of the Net

This week the black footballer and Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford forced a government U-turn over the provision of free school meal vouchers over the summer. Rashford’s letter shows the impact of speaking out authentically. He wrote: “I would be doing myself, my family and my community an injustice if I didn’t stand here today with my voice and my platform and ask you for help.”

We must never forget the power of the word; the simply expressed argument, the well-told tale, the accessible history, the righteous polemic, the targeted criticism or, in this case, the public letter. There is no better example, indeed, than this week’s number one—from Reni Eddo-Lodge—a polemic that can both teach and discomfit.

In this country we live in a time of unprecedented freedoms around our rights to publish, with social media, in particular, giving everyone a platform on which to say just about anything to, and about, anyone. There are consequences, of course, we are free to speak, others are free to respond. One might think this is the best of times therefore, but in truth it may not always feel like it. Try searching for J K Rowling on Twitter: the abuse, unfettered, and uninhibited. The pact we have all made making this permissible.

In my virtual reality, I—or The Bookseller—rarely get called out, but even so there is a mental health cost when it happens. Social media can be used for great impact. Crucially, it can prick our privilege, quickly telling us when we get things wrong, but to be publicly pilloried is new and its effects curiously unacknowledged. The use of social media is linked to increased anxiety and depression and for all of the chatter, calling out and cancelling, one result of this is that there is now much left unsaid. On my own part, and I am not unique, I now self-censor. Last week’s #ChooseBookshops riff is an easier piece to write than anything where phrases might be misconstrued, or offence taken.

Others are far braver. Rashford is one, as are those authors of colour who have long called out publishing for its bias, and do so on platforms that are rampant with racial abuse; so too are today’s trans writers whose identities have been placed under public scrutiny. Equally so are those Hachette staffers who this week signed an open letter to their employer. Brave is the individual who speaks out knowing the dire consequences of that speech.

I don’t pretend any of this is easy. You cannot be pro free speech while denying the rights of others to express themselves; you cannot ask for tolerance while turning a blind eye to the intolerance of others. You cannot go into publishing and be insulated from views you do not agree with. As Dialogue publisher Sharmaine Lovegrove tweeted in response to the Hachette letter: “I value working at a company where we can have open & robust conversations on all areas of marginalisation and oppression.”

Words have power. And as Rashford and Eddo-Lodge have shown, you can do more with them than shout, and call out. You can also make change.