Harper’s Magazine has published a letter on “open debate” which is signed by 150 journalists, writers and academics, from Noam Chomsky to J.K. Rowling. The letter itself is relatively brief and takes plenty of shots at the right on the way to making a point about left’s growing fondness for cancel culture.
You can read it all here. The letter praises “powerful protests” for social justice and then warns that “forces of illiberalism” (they name Trump as an ally of these forces) are “gaining strength.” The letter warns “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma.” And that’s really the main point of the letter.
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.
Back in January I wrote about YouTuber Natalie Wynn who made a pretty good argument that there is a clear difference between social accountability and cancel culture. The former is about changing someone’s mind while the latter is almost always about punishing unorthodox views either socially or economically. The letter continues:
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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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.
Some of the items mentioned in that list are ones we’ve written about in the past month or two. The firing of NY Times editor James Bennet over Sen. Tom Cotton’s op-ed. The progressive researcher fired for tweeting a study that said rioting hurt Democrats at the polls. Frankly, there are a lot more recent examples the letter didn’t mention, like that awful Washington Post piece about a random woman’s Halloween costume from two years ago. But the idea that we are narrowing the boundaries of what can be said seems pretty accurate.
The letter concludes by saying we need to maintain space for “good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.” In other words, cancel culture is a bad idea and we need to stop it.
As mentioned above, Noam Chomsky and J.K. Rowling (who I wrote about yesterday) signed the letter. Other familiar names include academic Jonathan Haidt, NY Times columinst Bari Weiss, Vox’s Matt Yglesias, author Malcolm Gladwell, academic John McWhorter, author Jesse Singal, and author Margaret Atwood, just to name a few. Nicholas A. Christakis of Yale, who has experienced cancel culture first hand, is also on the list.
Despite all the throat clearing about the right, it’s really the popularity of this new cancel culture on the left that is the main target. The more the left tries to mainstream these ideas the more people on the left split off and criticize them for doing so. The first wave of people rejecting it became the Intellectual Dark Web. Now you have another, larger wave of people, most of whom are progressives, who are expressing concern about the recent rise of cancel culture.
But I don’t think cancel culture is going to stop. It has grown in parallel with Black Lives Matter and the identity politics that supports it. Now that White Fragility is a bestseller it seems likely the number of people who join the social justice cult will continue grow, giving them more power to punish even more people in the future.
What may be most noteworthy about this letter is how few people signed it compared to the number of people who are currently embracing BLM and identity politics.