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‘American Dirt’ controversy scores another win for mob mentality | Opinion

The publisher of 'American Dirt' has canceled the book tour, including a scheduled talk at the Free Library.

"American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins.
"American Dirt" by Jeanine Cummins.Read moreCourtesy of Flatiron Books

I’m sorry. Mea culpa. My bad.

I know some readers out there will take offense to this op-ed. So I’d like to apologize to them, right off the bat, and promise to do better next time.

Just kidding.

All good writing offends — or at least provokes — someone. If it doesn’t, it’s just repeating conventional wisdom. But we live in a culture of fear, where giving offense has become the cardinal sin.

Witness the recent brouhaha over the novel American Dirt, which describes a Mexican mother and son fleeing a drug cartel and trying to enter the United States. Critics called the book “border chic” and “trauma porn,” claiming that author Jeanine Cummins — who identifies as white and Latina, having a Puerto Rican grandmother — had traded in harmful stereotypes and capitalized on Latino suffering.

Then the apologies started coming in, from people who had formerly praised American Dirt.

Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek admitted that she hadn’t read American Dirt before she hailed Oprah Winfrey for recommending it and for “giving voice to the voiceless.” But then Hayek heard a different voice — also known as a Twitter mob — and she changed her tune.

“I thank all of you who caught me in the act of not doing my research, and for setting me straight,” Hayek posted the following day, “and I apologize for shouting out something without experiencing it or doing research on it.”

Do you think Hayek read the book in the intervening 24 hours and came to a new judgment of it? Think again. Her “research” was of the social media variety, confirming that a lot of people were very offended by American Dirt. And that was all she needed to know.

A writer for the celebrity website Hola! congratulated Hayek for backtracking. “It takes guts to admit when you’re wrong,” wrote Robert Peterpaul, “but Salma Hayek is gutsy.” Really? How much courage is required to put your finger in the air, figure out which way the Instagram winds are blowing, and adjust your opinions accordingly?

Even authors who had provided blurbs in praise of American Dirt moved quickly to distance themselves from it. Mexican-American poet and novelist Erika L. Sánchez, who had celebrated the book for its “grace, compassion, and precision,” told the New York Times that she would not have endorsed American Dirt had she known how many people would be upset by it.

To be fair, not every fan of American Dirt threw it under the bus after the Twitter-storm started. “I read the book and I loved it,” wrote novelist Ann Patchett, who had lauded the “moral compass” of American Dirt. “That experience can’t be changed by people who don’t like it.”

Actually, it can. In a world where any kind of offense is taboo, we change our minds as soon as enough people complain. Then we pile on, joining hands to shame the wrongdoer and — not least — to remind everyone else that we’re right. And we must punish offenders absolutely, making sure that they are no longer considered part of the human family.

That’s what happened to American Dirt author Cummins, whose publisher canceled her book tour — including a scheduled talk at Philly’s Free Library in May — citing all of the violent threats Cummins had received.

I’m not here to defend American Dirt, which might be objectionable on any number of grounds. That’s a matter of opinion. What I object to are people who denounce it simply because so many others did.

That’s not wokeness; it’s laziness, with a strong dose of sadism mixed in. Many people attacking American Dirt don’t know anything about it except that it’s been declared “problematic,” to borrow social media’s slur du jour. But they feel perfectly comfortable reviling the author, who can be rendered a pariah with a few quick strokes of the keyboard.

That might happen to me, too, in response to this op-ed. So be it. My job is not to make you happy, but to make you think. No one should apologize for that.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published this fall by Johns Hopkins University Press.