authors and academics

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

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Updated Jul 10, 2020 at 11:46AM EDT by Don.

Added Jul 08, 2020 at 10:24AM EDT by Don.

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About

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, often referred to as The Letter or The Harper's Open Letter, is an open letter published by Harper's Magazine and signed by over 150 writers, academics and artists which called to stand against an "intolerant climate" regarding ideological diversity. Online, the letter spawned numerous online debates over free speech and cancel culture. Various prominent figures signed the letter, including writer Margaret Atwood, choreographer Bill T. Jones, linguist Noam Chomsky, Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias, psychologist Steven Pinker, writer J.K. Rowling, musician Wynton Marsalis and writer Salman Rushdie.

Origin

On July 7th, 2020, Harper's[1] published the letter, which stated that "censoriousness" that had been previously expected from "the radical right" had become more commonplace.

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion--which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.


Spread

That day, Redditor mugen40k submitted the letter to /r/chomsky,[2] where it gathered more than 480 comments and 285 points (98% upvoted) in 24 hours. Meanwhile, historian Kerri Greenidge tweeted[5] that she did not "endorse" the letter and that she was "in contact with Harper's about a retraction." Her name was subsequently removed from the list of signatories.


Kerri Greenidge @GreenidgeKerri I do not endorse this @Harpers letter. I am in contact with Harper's about a retraction 5:03 PM - Jul 7, 2020 - Twitter for Android

That evening, author Jennifer Boylan tweeted an apology, stating that she "did not know who else signed that letter." In response, writer Malcolm Gladwell tweeted[3] that he signed the letter because there were other signatories who held views he disagreed with, stating "I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter" (shown below).


Malcolm Gladwell @Gladwell I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter. Jennifer Finney Boylan *O @JennyBoylan · 15h I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry. 9:18 AM - Jul 8, 2020 · Twitter for iPhone

Also on July 7th, Vox writer Emily VanDerWerff tweeted[7] a letter sent to Vox editors, stating that while she did not wish for Yglesias to be reprimanded for signing the letter, she felt "deeply saddened" to see his name on the list of signatures and that she also felt "less safe at Vox" (shown below). Within 24 hours, the tweet received upwards of 13,000 likes and 2,000 retweets.


I sent a version of this to the editors of Vox. (l have redacted some bits that are internal to Vox and shouldn't be aired publicly.) To me editors: As a trans woman who very much values her position at Vox and the support the publication has given her th

Meanwhile, Anthony Fantano tweeted[9] “'Cancel Culture' would be a lot less controversial if it was called 'People Reacting To Me Being A Shithead Culture'" (shown below, left). In response, many criticized the tweet by pointing out efforts to connect him with the alt-right in 2017 (shown below, right).


debatethonty metano @theneedledrop "Cancel Culture" would be a lot less controversial if it was called "People Reacting To Me Being A S------- Culture." 8:04 PM · Jul 7, 2020 · Twitter for iPhone YOUTUBE.COM / VITO O @VitoGesualdi · 15h Replying to @theneedledrop Remember when you almost got cancelled and had to delete one of your YouTube channels and stop having any political opinions to survive it? 27 45 8 577 YOUTUBE.COM / VITO O @VitoGesualdi - 14h Like. are you really not mad you got told to "stay in your lane" and only talk about music? That the second you attempted to express actual opinions about current events you got labeled a member of the "alt-right" and had to grovel for forgiveness? Роy Lana & Noah Mae Martin P. Yungblud Pain. Sam Smith Lo. Da The World's Biggest Music Vlogger Has A Secret Alt-Right YouTube Channel And People Are P-----

The following day, author Natasha Devon tweeted[8] that "#CancelCulture doesn't really exist," stating that it is a "myth" perpetuated by "people who have been used to saying whatever they want without being challenged" (shown below, left). Also on July 8th, YouTuber Count Dankula mocked those who claimed "cancel culture isn't real" on Twitter,[6] stating he had been prevented from getting a job at a pawn shop following his controversial Nazi pug salute video (shown below).


Natasha Devon @_NatashaDevon #CancelCulture doesn't really exist. It's a myth created by people who have been used to saying whatever they want without being challenged and are now surprised when there are consequences to their words. #Rowling is still a very rich bestselling author with a massive platform. 5:44 AM · Jul 8, 2020 · Twitter for iPhone > Count DankulaX= #BLM @CountDankulaTV · 4h "Cancel culture isn't real" You f---- wouldn't even let me have a job in a f------ pawn shop. 99 27 1.2K 9.6K Count DankulaXE #BLM @CountDankulaTV Seriously, after nazi pug happened I tried to just get a regular job, every time I did you guys found my employer and harassed them into firing me. That pawn shop also still owes me a weeks wages. 6:42 AM - Jul 8, 2020 - Twitter Web App

Also on July 8th, Vox co-founder Ezra Klein tweeted[10] that "debates that sell themselves as being about free speech are actually about power" and that the "mantle of free speech defender" is very powerful. In response, Yglesias asked "Should I reply to this with a concrete example or stick to my commitments to you?" (shown below). Yglesias' tweet was subsequently deleted.


Ezra Klein O @ezraklein · 3m A lot of debates that sell themselves as being about free speech are actually about power. And there's *a lot* of power in being able to claim, and hold, the mantle of free speech defender. O 10 27 46 211 Matthew Yglesias @mattyglesias Replying to @ezraklein Should I reply to this with a concrete example or stick to my commitments to you? 2:20 PM · 08 Jul 20 from Maine, USA · Twitter for iPhone

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