Public letter in Harper’s sparks furor

An open letter published in Harper’s this week has revved up the debate over free speech and cancel culture.

The letter, which was signed by 153 mostly liberal writers and academics, including J.K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie, drew attention to a battle that has been building in academia, journalism and on social media amid a divisive political landscape and extraordinary civil unrest.

The letter warned about an effort on the left to “weaken our norms of open debate.” The authors argued that imposing limits on speech is dangerous and has created an atmosphere of paranoia that leaves people afraid to share their views over fears they will be fired from their jobs.

The letter was met with a swift and intense backlash. Two people who signed the letter later expressed regret for joining the effort. A rebuttal letter circulated accusing the signers of defending the old guard.

Critics said publishers and influential social media figures should consider the consequences of their speech and whether it endangers or demonizes historically marginalized groups of people.

That debate is unfolding as the nation is convulsed by protests and a national reckoning over institutional racism and policing. It raises thorny questions about whether there should be limits on speech or consequences for offensive remarks.

The Harper’s letter was spearheaded by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a columnist for Harper’s and a contributor to New York Times magazine.

The signers include left-wing luminaries like Noam Chomsky, writers Malcolm Gladwell, Martin Amis and Margaret Atwood, journalists George Packer, David Frum and Fareed Zakaria, and scores of other historians, psychologists, linguists, poets and academics.

African American intellectual leaders such as Williams, Nell Irvin Painter, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Gregory Pardlo and John McWhorter also signed on.

All or most of the signers are stridently anti-Trump. The letter is explicit in its support of police reform and peaceful protests to address systemic racism.

“We tried to make it clear that the greatest threat to democracy is the extraordinarily incompetent, unqualified and possibly deranged president. We’re all opposed to police brutality and support the protests rising up,” Williams told The Hill.

“But a big problem arises when you try to overcorrect for a wrong and you reach a solution that becomes a kind of coercive dogma that has a chilling effect. This happens outside of official channels when a social media mob turns on you and there’s no mechanism for appeal. We’re just saying this can’t be the way our human resources departments make employment decisions.”

The letter expressed alarm over the “intolerance of opposing views” and “public shaming and ostracism” aimed at those who challenge liberal ideas.

The authors said this phenomenon has “steadily narrowed the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.”

“It is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought,” the letter states. “More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. … 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.”

The authors are drawing attention to so-called cancel culture, in which people have lost their jobs after social pressure for offensive or controversial remarks.

A rebuttal letter, spearheaded by journalists of color, was published Friday morning.

The reporters accused the Harper’s signers of ignoring the systemic racism in media that has contributed to the current efforts to level the playing field.

“The irony of the piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing,” they write.

“Their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades the media industry, an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out.”

Rowling’s signature on the letter provoked widespread anger. The author of the beloved “Harry Potter” series has misgendered transgender women in Twitter posts. She has said that she “wants trans women to be safe,” but that she’s worried about ensuring the safety of “natal girls” in bathrooms and changing rooms. 

In a lengthy statement released in early June, Rowling said she believes it is too easy for trans people to change their gender identification. She has made the case that trans people oftentimes do not need surgery or hormones to be granted a gender confirmation certificate.

“I’ve said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones — then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside,” Rowling wrote. “That is the simple truth.”

Author Jennifer Finney Boylan, a trans woman, apologized for signing the Harper’s letter, saying she did not know that Rowling was a part of the effort.

“[The signers] appear to be asking for freedom from consequences for their own speech,” wrote Mike Masnick, an editor at TechDirt. “Please don’t publicly shame us or make our bosses rethink our employment for our speech, no matter how bad it is. That is not a pro-free speech stance. It is a anti-consequences stance, and it’s truly disappointing to see many of the signatories endorse this.”

The signers said the letter was not an endorsement of each other’s views, but rather an example of how a broad coalition of people could agree on the need for the free flow of ideas.

Other critics pointed to the massive platforms and influence the signers have, saying their claims that people are being silenced are overstated.

The signers acknowledge this, saying they wrote the letter because they have enough social and professional capital to not have to worry about being silenced or fired.

They said their concern is protecting individuals who don’t have the same amount of power. For many private citizens, the signers said, it is easier for their employers to cut them loose to avoid the headache of dealing with a public relations problem.

“We weren’t claiming to be victims,” Zaid Jilani, a liberal reporter who signed the letter, told The Hill. “It was a way for some of those who signed the letter to use their influence to argue for a new set of norms for workers.”

Both Williams and Jilani pointed to a case involving 28-year-old David Shor, a former data analyst at the political firm Civis Analytics and a veteran of President Obama’s 2012 campaign.

In late May, Shor tweeted out a study from Princeton professor Omar Wasow, a black man, whose research found that it can be detrimental to the cause of protesters when their movement becomes associated with violence.

Shor did not express an opinion on the study but social media users accused him of undermining the nonviolent protesters. Some of his colleagues and clients at Civis complained. Shor apologized publicly but was fired a few days later.

The other watershed moment came earlier this year when The New York Times published an op-ed from Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) calling on Trump to deploy troops into U.S. cities dealing with protests over the police killing of George Floyd.

A number of reporters in the Times newsroom expressed deep anger, arguing that the op-ed endangered the lives of their black colleagues. Editorial page director James Bennet, who had already been under scrutiny over previous missteps, resigned under pressure. 

Critics accused the Times of setting a dangerous precedent by firing an employee for publishing commentary the paper’s reporters or readers might disagree with. Those who defended the firing said Cotton has plenty of platforms to get his views out and the Times shouldn’t be amplifying his message if it could lead to real-world harm.

Those battle lines have become brighter and more complex in the age of Trump.

Newsrooms are debating how to present Trump’s divisive rhetoric on race and his untruthful remarks. Democrats are hyper-sensitive to the spread of misinformation on Facebook following Russia’s efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.

The prominence of ugly and racially motivated online attacks are a major problem for the social media giants. Employers are dealing with tough questions about the path back to redemption for workers ensnared in social media controversies or viral instances of rage.

Academia is reckoning with diversity and inclusion within their ranks. Newsrooms are undergoing generational change, as young millennials with different values leave campuses and achieve positions of power in the media.

“No one is pretending that [speech] is the gravest concern in the world,” said Williams.

“There’s a global pandemic and millions of people are out of work. Trump is a real threat to democracy and we all believe that we need to stand up for marginalized groups,” Williams added. “But there’s also a perverse logic to mob punishment and the old impulse to burn the heretic. There’s a discernible pleasure people get in seeing someone torn apart publicly and I think it’s disingenuous to deny that.”

Tags Cancel culture Coronavirus David Frum free speech Harper's Tom Cotton
See all Hill.TV See all Video