I’m terrified to write this—and that’s the problem.
In the wake of the Harper’s letter, I’ve witnessed flabbergasting displays of casuistry. Critics have attacked the motives and character of certain signatories, as though accusations of hypocrisy—whether justified or not—could invalidate the principles within the letter itself. Many have argued that the cancel culture the letter decries doesn’t even exist, despite seemingly unending examples. Perhaps more alarming were those who didn’t deny the existence of cancel culture, but considered the term loser-speak for the consequences of bad behavior, an argument reeking of well, what were you wearing?
These attacks, with the venom and vitriol that often accompanied them, have only proved the letter’s point. One criticism was particularly frustrating: the idea that this was merely a tantrum on the part of privileged, platformed elites, whinging over finally being brought to task by nobodies—a mass of the formerly voiceless, newly gifted with power that the establishment and its gatekeepers could not suppress. But, in their fervor against the letter, these warriors of virtue seem to have forgotten something.
I’m a nobody too, and many like me don’t agree with you.
True, a large number of the signatories are in positions of influence and prestige, and another criticism thrown at them is that people have therefore found it virtually impossible to cancel them (though not for lack of trying). So, why the whining? Despite this explicit statement in the letter—“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”—its detractors completely missed the point. The signatories are doing this on behalf of those of us who aren’t immune from cancellation. They’re doing it for people like me, who have way more to lose.
I really could lose everything over this, and that’s why I’m terrified.
I’ve felt the chilling effects of this for most of my adult life, but I don’t need to go very far back to illustrate them. After George Floyd was murdered, I knew what the response from many of our institutions and my social circles would be, what the arguments would sound like, and how far from my own reasoning they would lie. As protests erupted and slogans were hurled and memes shared, I felt like an atheist at the table during grace: I couldn’t go along with much of what I was seeing and hearing because it was wrong to me. I believe that black lives matter—but I cannot support Black Lives Matter when so much of their rhetoric is confused, dishonest or based on misinterpretations of the data. I reject and repudiate racism of any kind, but I can’t in good conscience support the current strains of anti-racism because so many of their tenets and arguments are nonsensical, tautological, and even racist in themselves. I love, respect, and feel deep compassion for trans people and do not deny anyone’s fundamental humanity or right to exist, but I cannot deny my own understanding of the science behind biological sex.
None of these perspectives come from a place of hatred or ignorance—quite the opposite. I care deeply about solving the issue of police violence, about eliminating racism and hatred wherever they exist, about achieving a truly egalitarian society in which all are free to live as they wish. It is precisely because I care about these problems that I am so staunchly committed to practicality and honesty in engaging with them. We cannot solve them if we deny objective reality, and we cannot achieve our goal of building a better world for everyone if we can’t communicate effectively—especially when we disagree.
The trouble is that even saying this is dangerous. I have a great job and feel valuable at work for the first time in my life. What a terrible thing it would be to lose this opportunity over a tweet or article that has been misinterpreted by strangers on the internet. It’s perfectly understandable for me—and for many like me—to feel that the risk isn’t worth it and remain silent. But this dynamic is unsustainable and, despite my instinct for self preservation, I find myself compelled to speak, however tentatively, to try to contribute to the discourse in a meaningful and productive way. It bothers me when people don’t seem to make any sense. It breaks my heart when I see us veering further and further off the path to progress because we can’t—or won’t—communicate. I speak despite being terrified about the possible repercussions because how can we build a better world if we don’t encourage good-faith discourse?
That’s the fulcrum on which the Harper’s letter turns: I could be wrong about everything, and I am willing to hear the reasons why, but I must be given the chance to be wrong. I must be able to not only express my opinions, but to know that my life won’t crumble around me because I happen to be in disagreement with the crowd. We must grant one another compassion and the benefit of the doubt, despite our basest instincts and the social media platforms that cynically incentivize them. I’ve been wrong nearly every day of my life, and there hasn’t been one instance in which I didn’t become a better person for having learned through compassionate correction. If I’d been afraid to speak or act, or if I’d been met with righteous anger instead, I might have never learned at all.
I’m a nobody, but I aspire to be like many of the letter’s signatories—to inspire and enlighten others the way I’ve been inspired and enlightened by them. I’m a nobody, but I want to think in public, contribute to productive discourse, and have my ideas challenged, changed and refined. I’m a nobody, but I’d have proudly signed the letter if asked, because I hold the principles it espouses—honesty, civility, good faith disagreement—in the highest regard. Despite the criticisms against it, the letter was advocating for the nobodies. I support it because it’s important to me that nobodies matter; that nobodies have the chance to speak, to question, to be wrong.
Preserving the ability to challenge the orthodoxy without fear is the bedrock upon which liberal society is built, and it’s the bullseye the letter was aiming for. But the letter isn’t magic. It can’t protect my livelihood. It can’t protect my reputation, insignificant though it may be. All it can do is appeal to a better mode of thinking and acting. The rest is up to you—and to all of us.
I’ve gone out on a limb here. In making my point I have stated certain heresies, in print, for all the world to see. They aren’t unique to me, but they aren’t usually voiced in this way, by people with so little armor against the responses they tend to incite. The target is now on my back, in clear view of anyone wishing to take their shot. What will become of me now? What values will you embody as you engage with me and with what I’ve written? The ones outlined in the letter are a good start.
Cancel culture exists—but together we can end it.