How to read ethically

 Jk Rowling was recently cancelled online. After her very public tweets on trans people which were labelled as transphobic and dangerous by several members of the society including prominent writers such as Stephen King, Rowling took the opportunity to label her experience as a direct result of cancel culture that has supposedly become a routine phenomenon in the world – especially that part of the world which is becoming increasingly connected because of faster and easier access to internet.

Rowling is a particularly interesting case. She has been responsible, perhaps in a large way, in shaping an entire generation of readers. Her hit series Harry Potter is not only one of the most sold books of all time, but the movies and the subsequent ‘fandom’ culture that was built around those books is huge and now spans generations. Her books came at an important juncture in Young Adult literature- a point where longform fantasy fiction had not been explored or perhaps marketed in the way Harry Potter was. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was the first novel I ever owned and I do owe it to the series for invoking my interest in reading voraciously, and perhaps there are millions of people out there who have had similar experiences. In that perhaps her tweets came across as shocking in many ways. Not only was the experience of consuming that literature rooted in a potentially transphobic and marginalising view it also gave the author an extreme amount of control on the ways a reader should be consuming literature. She had post facto made changes to the text itself—Dumbledore was apparently in the closet. Her presence as the Author with the capital A was very explicit—you couldn’t escape the spectre of Rowling. Perhaps in that case her tweets hit the hardest too, it was like finding out your mom had actually run over your dog while backing the car in the driveway instead of the story she told you about the random truck.

Rowling was quick to seek refuge in the classic liberal elite discourse- Hey! This is my freedom of speech. How dare you? Theoretically I should be able to say anything politely, even if it means I may be potentially overstepping certain limits. Perhaps there is some merit to this argument of whether the outrage against Rowling was indeed an attack on liberal values of tolerance. However, the more interesting outcome here was the en masse call for the boycott of Harry Potter. If we were letting people with problematic world views freely express themselves, would that then have dangerous consequences for the communities that they are attempting to marginalise? Perhaps people with influence should voice their opinions with care—whether it is true in praxis is an altogether separate question. However, I think this moment  has a decisively larger impact on the discourse around cancel culture. Some say this is the “extreme left” behaving like the “extreme right”—quelling discourse and exchange of ideas by mobbing together to shut the said person down. Some say this is outright censorship. Art should be allowed to exist freely and without external impediments. So was born the idea of ‘ethical consumption’. You read with a purpose, maybe not to extract a specific experience out of the literature you are reading but the very act of reading should be radical and political.

The question then becomes- how do you reconcile the tension that ethical consumption has with censorship? Perhaps even more urgently, what do we mean by ethical consumption and what does it exactly do to us?

As the world becomes more connected to identities that were once invisibile or erased we see that fiction has begun to be placed in the midst of fiery discourse surrounding the source and tellings of certain stories. Fiction has always been open, which means that anyone could tell any stories– of course the catch being you need to be privileged enough to know how to tell those stories in the first place. It was the men who wrote women characters into existence and the cycle of tellings and retellings continues pretty much the same. After the advent of globalisation there was a ray of hope– perhaps now, people who had been unable to tell their own stories would have the chance to give it voice, perhaps we could escape the provincial connotations of these stories and make them available to the general cosmopolitan public that was consuming more and more literature as pulp fiction became commonplace. Authors multiplied, now everyone could write or perhaps that was what was theoretically possible at least (getting published is an entirely different part of this discussion). The internet and dot.com bubble made books even more accessible– now you could sit on your laptop and write endless blogs for your audience. You could even write entire books from the comfort of your desk chair with the insane amount of information and research that was already available online. Which means that it also made the author directly accessible. No longer did you have to wait in long lines at your favorite bookstore just so you could get a glimpse of the person that had changed your life by writing that one campus novel.

The author was there, they were living, breathing individuals, they were diverse and they were perhaps,  sometimes, not nearly as intelligent as their works. Who would have thought that Zizek who has posited some of the most radical theories on object relations is perhaps an advocate against the me too movement? Or that Rowling with her carefully constructed world of young wizards did not actually believe that trans women were women? Neither of their opinions have any bearing on their literary output though. It is not like we stopped reading Zizek because he was misogynistic or that we entirely gave up Harry Potter because of this one tweet. However the act of  compensating for problematic views from authors does put some sort of responsibility and burden on the reader. The idea of ethical consumption makes an important case. Are we, by reading these works, then, in some way benefitting and agreeing with the reprehensible opinions? Should our recognition of Rowling as a transphobe have a bearing on our subsequent readings of Harry Potter? I think Barthes would perhaps disagree here. He would say that this presence of the author is a capitalist construct– one that takes away power from the reader and places it squarely in the hands of a third party. Independent reading can never be possible if it is clouded by the sociological influence of the person who wrote the art, because once the art is out there it is no longer theirs. I also think Barthes is wrong, and perhaps his lens is more privileged than he cares to admit.

The obvious opposition to ethical consumption is censorship. How can you stop people from consuming a certain strand of art just because it is coming from a source that may potentially be harmful? Censorship has always been held as something which stops art from realising ‘maximum’ potential. In fact in the many debates surrounding  JK Rowling, the most pressing was the Harper’s Bazaar letter. A group of acclaimed intellectuals of the world– including Noam Chomsky – wrote on the hazards of boycotting writers and intellectuals, and how censorship in academia is rampant and prevents people from getting the chance to grow and learn.  In that I agree with them, censorship is rampant. It is rampant in the custodial violence that several poets and authors have had to face because of the brutal anti terror laws in India.  Perumul Murrugun being forced to write apology letters for his novel One Part Woman was censorship. Salman Rushdie facing dangerous backlash for Satanic Verses was censorship, Taslima Nasreen being banned for Lajja was censorship. Then the issue is not censorship because clearly the AUTHORity here is somewhere else right? The reader is not actively deciding or even choosing to read, but if they do they will make the conscious  decision of consuming something coming from a particular source.  I do not think the author can die, perhaps not in an age where the author has become a celebrity. It now comes with its own connotations of who is writing the story and why and it may as well have serious implications on what we are reading as a consequence.  I also do not think that stopping consumption of literature that is coming from elite positions or dangerous positions is the answer either– and I say that as someone who is writing from a elite position. A little accountability never hurt anyone, but this is definitely not censorship.

In fact I would go as far to say that it is a good thing we know where the story is coming from. We have come a long way from the structuralist discourse that places these ideas in some sort of absurd vacuum as if consumption of literature hasn’t always been a political act. In her famous essay “The Laugh of Medusa”, Cixous opens with the following lines- “Woman must write her self: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies… Woman must put herself into the text– as into the world and into history– by her own movement.” The ownership of art matters because to write something from a certain position means that you are writing into existence the privileges that come with that position. In that, if marginalised voices aren’t consumed more, they will stop getting written by the ones that should be writing it. Storytelling has been the most powerful tool of rebellion-  just look back and remember how the Nazis burnt books and curated museums. Stories hold the power of ontological violence, violence that can in fact write into existence a new form of nomenclature. To me, it is a small price to pay if people were to read with purpose, perhaps the politicization of pleasure will lead to an expansion of the people that can in fact enjoy this pleasure. The joy of seeing ‘representation’ in mainstream media, the feeling of reading a character and saying Hey! This could be me too! Or simply looking at a new world being written into existence. All of these have immense repercussions on the way readers view the world too.

This is simply a part of creating equitability– it is both messy and dangerous and most importantly – someone will have to cut corners. Distributive justice has long pondered on the philosophy behind redistribution. Is it fair to take power away from the upper echelons of the society or do we simply create a larger base of this power and therefore give everyone an automatic chance to participate in that process? Perhaps the answer lies in making the space itself more inclusive. Those with social capital will continue to write and produce, but perhaps cancel culture makes them beware of what they are writing about and how they are writing it. Writing is supposed to be cathartic, but it is also supposed to be a social activity– in that the stakeholders involved in the situation becomes this large base of readers who are learning how to name and identify aspects of their own self through this act of consumption. Perhaps, the answer is not always with the reader- perhaps it is with the capitalist structure that fine tunes the reader to certain aspects of consumption, the answer is in collective action.

Sumana Roy in an opinion piece titled For long, Indian English literary establishment has enforced a culture that can only be called Brahminical, says the following lines about the culture of the literary “The literary can behave like a gharana, and it is the nature of gharanas to keep things unlike it outside its fold.” she talks about the eliteness that comes with the literary spaces especially in India, and she also alludes to the impact on what we consider to be quality literature. Of course, ethical consumption will question this idea of quality itself– in a revolutionary manner. If the base is larger, and the author is relevant then there would effectively be multiplicity in the ideas and thoughts as well. No longer would the favorite author lists of people be crowded with white old men or rich bengali academics, or perhaps upper caste writers. Perhaps we will get the breadth and depth we deserve and should rightly have access to. Perhaps the market would write not simply to earn money or to sell books to us but so that we can actually read. 

I think in many ways, cancel culture and the subsequent introspection may not just be a mob-like attack on tolerance or some sort of ‘left imitating the right’. It is and should be considered as a safety valve against the rising celebrity culture and is also an effective way of encouraging ethical consumption perhaps in a safer and faster way. 

Prerna Vij is currently a third-year undergraduate student of Political Science and English Literature at Ashoka University.

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