We’re at a point where even merely supporting the principles of debate and free speech are now problematic. Harper’s Weekly published a letter in support of those principles. There are some notable names on the list. J.K. Rowling is on there, as is Bari Weiss of The New York Times, Noam Chomsky, Fareed Zakaria, Francis Fukuyama, and Vox’s Matt Yglesias. Here’s the letter:
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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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.
There is nothing controversial about this letter. Yes, it’s nothing new. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but with The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer caving to the ‘woke’ crowd over headlines and publishing of op-eds that are of a different opinion, maybe this needs to be said. At any rate, it also shows that even liberals are a tad worried about the encroaching lefty mob peddling their rigid and almost impossible standard regarding what’s culturally acceptable. And that’s the point, right? It’s meant to erase everything and start anew. It’s a soft Maoist cultural revolution. It’s Pol Pot without the killing fields. They’re trying to get year zero started. And yes, the ‘woke’ legions were disturbed by this letter, while others rightly pointed out that these signatories were AWOL when the cancel crowd was running amok. They’re only running to the ramparts now that their ivory towers are under threat of being topped. There’s some truth to that, yes (via Daily Caller News Foundation):
Many journalists and media figures responded to the letter with derision, singling out those who had signed. The Columbia Journalism Review’s Mathew Ingram called some of the signers “aging wankers” and “thin-skinned right-wing attention hogs.”
“I see only a collection of spineless liberals who never spoke out when cancel culture came for conservatives but now express concern when it’s affecting the intelligentsia,” said Human Events editor Ian Miles Cheong. “And how do they respond? With mild chiding, as if the far left are children to be scolded.”
Yet, there’s been some shooting inside the ship. Vox’s Matt Yglesias has been called out by Emily VanDerWerff, a trans writer at the publication. VanDerWerff expressed dismay at Matt’s signature, noting that some of the signatories are allegedly anti-trans, and then tossed in the unsafe workplace line in the statement, which was posted on Twitter. Now, VanDerWerff wants to make it clear that she doesn’t want Yglesias fired, which was met with skepticism. As many noted, why then post this statement if weren’t fishing for some sort of retributive action. I don’t know how Yglesias responded; he blocked me on Twitter nearly ten years ago. What I will say is that feeling triggered over this is exactly why the letter was written in the first place. This hyper-emotional need to call out, berate, and try to cancel people for signing declarations of free speech is crazy. It doesn’t mean Matt is anti-trans rights or anything for signing this letter. If NFL players all signed a letter denouncing DeSean Jackson’s anti-Semitic social media posts (they won’t, but just play along here) it doesn’t mean that everyone who signed on hates the Philadelphia Eagles. This guilt by association nonsense is just another way for the ‘woke’ masses to discredit and destroy people.
Since this got buried in replies: I’m not trying to be weaselly. I believe, deeply, in restoration over retribution. Some acts do require retribution; this is not one of them.https://t.co/81mzfyvFlg— Emily VanDerWerff ?? (@emilyvdw) July 7, 2020
And here they come for Matt Yglesias for the crime of *consults tea leaves* putting his name on the same open letter as J.K. Rowling.— Noam Blum (@neontaster) July 7, 2020
Also gotta admire her subsequent "oh ps please don't do anything to him tee hee. I wrote you this letter and also tweeted it because reasons." pic.twitter.com/1h8ZusINCR
If you don’t want someone fired you don’t write a public letter to the bosses saying he makes you “unsafe.” That word is an undisguised threat of hostile environment litigation. This person knows that. pic.twitter.com/P2Tv4kGaN5— Michael Brendan Dougherty (@michaelbd) July 7, 2020
A couple of people replied to this by pointing out that EVDW explicitly said she didn't want to get him in trouble. Sorry, but this is bullshit: She mentioned this making her job more difficult and making her less *safe* -- it's clear the goal is to somehow punish Matt for this. https://t.co/HK842hhCKj— Jesse Singal (@jessesingal) July 7, 202
"Safe" is apparently the latest word to fall victim to overuse and overkill. The idea that Matthew Yglesias's signature on this letter would make anyone literally feel "less safe" is nearly beyond comprehension. I read this will incredulity and even some sadness. https://t.co/XQmla4kFmm— jerylbier (@JerylBier) July 7, 2020
This perilous road we’re on regarding First Amendment and free speech rights is yet another area I’m worried about if liberals gain more political power. They’re not ones to avert curtailing speech and enacting speech codes in an effort to destroy language and silence their opposition. This path leads to us saying “plus and double-plus good” in the future.