Suppose you’re a writer with a self-destructive proclivity for sticking your neck out. Would you sign a book contract that would be canceled in the instance of ‘sustained, widespread public condemnation of the author’? Even cautious, congenial writers are working in an era when a bland, self-evident physiological assertion like ‘women don’t have penises’ attracts a school of frenzied piranhas. So journalists would be fools to sign a document voided if, in a magazine’s ‘sole judgment’, they were the subject of ‘public disrepute, contempt, complaints or scandals’.
These are the ‘morality clauses’ arising in standard publishing contracts in the wake of #MeToo. Primarily a Hollywood weapon of the 1930s and 1940s, morality clauses were used particularly to frighten actresses from disgraceful hanky-panky. So savor the irony: this legal loophole was designed to oppress women, especially in regard to sex. In consequence of a movement meant to thwart the oppression of women, especially in regard to sex, the clauses are sneaking back.
What makes these stipulations so alarming is their vagueness. Who exactly is ‘the public’? Who, or what, speaks for ‘the public’?
I think we know. ‘The public’ is Twitter.
Enshrining mob rule in legal contracts can only further embolden the cranks, the kooks, the grumps — the sanctimonious, the embittered, the aggrieved. As word spreads that outrage on digital steroids can not only hound and intimidate writers, but can consign years of their hard work to the bin, the Twits are further motivated to crucify anyone who breaks their imaginary rules.
These clauses are popping up largely to protect publishers from the blowback of alleged sexual misconduct of the sort that trashed the reputation of Junot Díaz (now exonerated). Granted, I’m not all that worried that I’ll suddenly start dry humping an intern at the HarperCollins Christmas party without the poor kid’s consent; the post-menopausal libido has its advantages. Yet while my compulsion to rub up against strangers may be on the wane, my compulsion to rub them the wrong way in a political sense grows only more enticing.
Hollywood’s morality clauses were deployed to blacklist American writers, directors and actors to mollify Joe McCarthy. In kind, today’s broad, nonspecific publishing opt-outs in the event of an author’s incurring ‘disrepute’ readily extend to thought crime — and the contemporary basket of ideological no-nos does nothing but burgeon. Off the top of my head, too-hot-to-handle topics now include anything to do with gender, sex, race, immigration, disability, social class, obesity and Islam (surely that list is too short). Writers who sign contracts with morality clauses would naturally shy from expressing views that depart from the dominant political orthodoxy, lest whole manuscripts be rejected and their advances be withdrawn.
Now, in truth, publishers can always wriggle out of contracts — by declaring that in their ‘sole judgment’ your book sucks. Morality clauses thus further disadvantage comparatively helpless freelancers.
Yet this is a much larger matter than writers whingeing about their writery problems in their little writery world. It’s an issue for readers, of course, but it extends beyond readers as well. All forms of employment are now altogether too contingent on not attracting the contumely of the crowd. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is packed with careers destroyed by social media. The broad result of #MeToo, whose hashtag brands the movement as Twitter spawn, has been less an increased respect for women’s sexual dignity and greater parity in the workplace than a pervasive neglect of due process and a massive hike in institutional cowardice.
Although buffeted by more than one tempest in Twitter’s teacup, I’ve hitherto been fortunate. It must have been tempting to cut me loose at points — no company needs dodgy publicity from some loudmouthed, five-foot-two headache — but so far, touch wood, my publishers have stood by me. But different personnel might have dropped Shriver cold. While no one has yet shoved a morality clause under my nose and expected me to sign (good luck with that), they’ve apparently become commonplace in my American publisher’s contracts.
At its inception, the internet was expected to allow individualism to flourish, exposing us all to an exciting heterodoxy now that everyone on the planet could have a voice. Vigorous exchanges of ideas and virtually infinite access to information was bound to lead to a well-educated, open-minded public, better capable as a collective of solving global problems. A fraction of that vision has indeed been manifested, and even social media consternation is sometimes constructive. But all too often that chorus of tiny voices has led to mindless swarming. The last thing we need is to enshrine the buzzing of a pestilence in legal documents.
Until punters finally find better things to do, we’ll not be rid of social media, nor constrain the natural tendency of large, anonymous groups to goad one another to greater extremes of vilification. But the most troubling response to this disembodied form of mass bullying has been widespread institutional capitulation. Publishers and other legacy media, companies and academia are our only real buttresses against mob rule.
An ‘institution’ sounds misleadingly abstract and monolithic. Corporations, universities and organizations are run by particular people. The editors and senior managers who have stuck by me are particular people. It’s time for individuals in similar positions of authority to stop folding in the face of online flak, much less giving the ‘tweet’ contractual weight. To instead push back. To show a little integrity, loyalty, and backbone. To stand up for their writers, their lecturers, their employees. To distinguish finger–pointing from fact. To staunchly weather passing Twitter storms, in the confidence that faddish communal temper tantrums will eventually exhaust themselves, or will at least move on to the next unfortunate, if only out of boredom.
It’s time for folks with institutional power to exercise independent judgment, rather than immediately disavowing overnight pariahs who only yesterday were their friends and colleagues. To refuse to respond to every mob at the door by picking up a baseball bat and joining the throng. You know who you are.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.