Letter Signed By Center-Left Intellectuals: Anti-Speech 'Cancel Culture' Craze Is Illiberal and Destructive

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Posted: Jul 08, 2020 10:25 AM
Letter Signed By Center-Left Intellectuals: Anti-Speech 'Cancel Culture' Craze Is Illiberal and Destructive

Source: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Five years ago, when Mary Katharine Ham and I wrote "End of Discussion," we primarily targeted the Left's debate- and speech-crushing "outrage industry," even as we acknowledged similar and concerning behavior within certain precincts on the Right. We did so because the Left heavily controls America's taste-making institutions -- from academia to Hollywood, to the news media (today, I'd consider adding sports to the list). Thus, while illiberal and dissent-silencing impulses undoubtedly reside on the Right as well, it's the Left that wields the cultural clout to widely impose and enforce their standards, therefore posing the far graver threat to America's heritage of open inquiry, robust debate, and free speech.

At the end of the book, we addressed "open-minded friends on the center-left," whom we implored to stand up for free expression, which we warned is too important to become a partisan issue. We wrote, "though an ideological conversion would be splendid, you can absolutely stand firm on your liberal principles while reminding your brethren what tolerance and open-mindedness (some of the most admirable, if decreasingly applicable tenets of liberalism) truly look like."  We also encouraged non-conservative readers to grapple with the following challenges in the midst of a political or cultural dispute: "Beyond contemplating, 'which side do I agree with?,' then moving along, also ask questions like, 'regardless of my own personal feelings, is either side trying to shut down this debate altogether?' And, "is the other side's stance so fundamentally unacceptable that it doesn't deserve a reasonably fair hearing?'"

With that as a backdrop, I wanted to highlight and applaud an open letter signed by dozens of mostly Left-liberal public figures, academics and intellectuals sounding on the alarm on their own side's rapid descent into aggressive, unflinching illiberalism -- even though they can't quite bring themselves to identify the ideological allegiances of the culprits. While I have some qualms with the final product (I'll mention a few below), I'm glad it was written and published by Harper's (see update). The core of the full missive is here:

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.

There are very few, if any, staunch conservative signatories, though some lean a bit rightward (David Brooks, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster). The lion's share of them fall on the center-left to Left-left spectrum -- including some very prominent names -- which is valuable. Many moderates and liberals may reflexively tune out anti-"cancel culture" warnings from right-wingers at this point (even though we've been right). Fighting this battle must be a bipartisan and cross-ideological cause, which is why this letter is so important. It's also why I'm willing to roll my eyes and forgive the requisite, throat-clearing denunciations of President Trump, "right-wing demagogues," and the "radical right" early on. Such things are de rigueur in their circles.

I'm a bit more disappointed, frankly, in the letter signers' unwillingness to explicitly identify the hard Left's glaring, undeniable and starring role in this vindictive climate. One might argue that the implication is clear and that the examples cited speak for themselves. But dancing around the "who," especially after taking multiple shots at the Right, doesn't exactly exude intellectual bravery or clarity. Then again, affixing their names to this document might be considered an act of courage unto itself these days, which reinforces their thesis. Regardless, nitpicking by demanding every jot and tittle align with my own view of the issue is self-defeating. The illiberal hordes are on the march, and allies against their advance are welcome. Period, end of discussion.

UPDATE - Like clockwork, some of the signatories are getting attacked and targeted for signing onto this letter, and some are dropping off.  It's a scary time for free thought and expression.