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.