This week, Harper’s magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter contains a reaffirmation of liberal values: a commitment to open debate, a refusal to ostracize others over disagreements and an endorsement of the value of tolerating diverse ideological stances. It is also a public lament at what the letter’s authors see as illiberal trends in society.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter opines: “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 need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.”
This seemingly benign, even vague, letter was signed by 153 of the most renowned scholars, authors and artists of our time, including Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, and Malcolm Gladwell.
A controversy ensued. And it has been as incomprehensible as it is ridiculous.
Some critics oppose the contents of the letter, claiming that no illiberal restraints on free speech exist, and that cancel culture just means holding people accountable for inappropriate behavior. Another set of critics do not think it appropriate to co-sign a letter with those of an unsavory ideological bent.
For example, Jennifer Finne Boylan has offered a public apology for having signed a letter alongside J. K. Rowling, Bari Weiss and Matthew Yglesias. The presence of these names, according to some critics, is evidence that the letter contains bigoted dog-whistles and coded attacks.
But signing an open letter merely establishes agreement with the contents of that letter, not with all the past and present beliefs of the other co-signatories.
Historian Kerri Greenidge also recalled her endorsement of the letter, and even been granted her request to retract her signature.
So, did Greenidge voluntarily sign something she disagreed with? It seems more likely that her recent actions were the result of social pressure because her name was included among those of the ostracized. This kind of social pressure, ironically, proves the need for the letter itself.
Greenidge and her entourage have claimed that she was misled as to the nature of the letter, and that her name was added without her consent. But leaked emails have shown that not only was Greenidge aware of the contents of the letter, but she thought that it “reads well.”
Her sister apparently still maintains that Greenidge did not consent to providing a signature.
The absurdity didn’t stop here—even Noam Chomsky has not escaped censure. Many have called him a traitor to his politics, and accused him of raising a false flag.
But the fact that Chomsky’s name appeared underneath the letter, next to Deirdre McCloskey’s does not suddenly establish Chomsky as a born-again libertarian. Nor does Margaret Atwood share J. K. Rowling’s views on gender. Just as someone who defends freedom of expression may not necessarily endorse all the ideas that are expressed, signing an open letter is only an endorsement of the content of the letter, not of all the ideas held by the other signatories.
This important distinction “has been understood outside of fascist circles since the eighteenth century,” as Chomsky himself has put it. We might wish to debate the worth of open letters, and we may disagree on whether or not people should sign them in the first place, or on the contents of this particular open letter. But, instead, there has been a rush to condemn those who dared to sign alongside the ostracized.
It is a hopeful sign that some of our most important thinkers are still courageous enough to sign a public letter in favor of open debate. It may seem like a small step, but in our current moment, it might prove a massive breakthrough for those of us who would like to skip past the age of the cultural commissars and their political litmus tests.
I was listening to Joe Rogan the other day, and his guest (Lindsay was the last name, don’t remember the first name) made a pretty good point: “Woke” people appear to themselves be racist, which they know is wrong and they’re battling their inner demons. This manifests in the form of them trying to aggressively stamp out anything that even appears to be racist, even when there isn’t any known connection to racism. He compared them to Calvinists, who were doing everything they could to stamp out sin, which eventually lead to witch burning. In other words, people being so caught up in their crusade against their own inner demons that they see their own inner demons in other people, and they do irrational things without asking themselves whether this is all in their heads. Right now this is just a moral panic, but who knows how far it will… Read more »
“Did you hear that?”
“No, I didn’t hear anything.”
“Exactly, it must be a dog whistle.”
How is that mindset not utter paranoia?
The irony in all this is a detail. Those who signed the letter, which in a passage quotes Donald Trump as “supporter” of illiberalism, say he is fighting against threats to freedom that you see were only created by liberals. This disgrace of the “culture of cancellation” is a tactic by radical liberals and now moderate liberals now have to be silent or apologize if they do not follow the dogmas of the “Church”. When the victims were conservative, everything was fine, right? Lack of warning was not, for years this cancer affects the culture. I am not a defender of Trump, although it seems (not that I see badly in those who defend it, it is democracy), but one thing is clear to me, even with a toxic culture launched by the liberals, this authoritarian culture they insist on mentioning only president as the greatest threat. He alone is… Read more »