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.
A nicely crafted essay! It feels like the work of someone with a generous spirit.
Angel is so much clearer in his writing then his fascist critics.
As my secular, liberal Jewish friend to say to me, a conservative, Christian, Angel, “from your lips to God’s ears.” Or as Dr. Francis Schaeffer said, “There is a flow to history determined by what people think. What people think determines what they do.” The life of the mind is fundamentally important, and therefore, I think, it is the fundamental battle ground. For myself, I work toward the goal of having integrity, of being truthful, and of dealing with others, lovely or unlovely, as I wish to be treated, with dignity, courtesy, and decency. Good for you. May your courage in your struggle in the arena be rewarded and significant.
Angel, you HAVE inspired and enlightened others. This is how we become stronger, healthier, wiser, and more decent. God bless you.
If you are talking about excesses, about hurting the innocent, I am with you all the way. Otherwise, I think you need to realize that certain forms of speech are just not going to be tolerated any longer. People used to smoke on airplanes too. This is just how things progress. It’s never easy but look at how far we have come.
I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I maintain that hashing out these specific topics is not the purpose of this particular article, which is why I didn’t get into them in greater detail. To have done so would have buried the thesis under a series of tangents and made the argument I was trying to make more difficult to see and understand. The reason I brought those issues up at all was to make the point that I hold views that are considered heretical to a certain cohort (as evidenced by the palpable hostility in your response) and that I should be argued out of them through good-faith conversation and compassionate correction rather than have my life destroyed for simply voicing them. I didn’t “lob accusations as facts.” I briefly outlined my point of view on a variety of hot-button topics, based on my current knowledge, in the service of… Read more »
“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.” These are strong assertions, and you give no evidence for any of them. I know in other comments you say that wasn’t the point, but YES, it is. If this is what you’re afraid you’ll be silenced for, then you need to understand how what you’re saying will be perceived. Lobbing accusations… Read more »
Thank you so much for posting this. It focuses much of what I have been thinking and feeling on this subject for the past few weeks. The phenomenon we are seeing now is as old as human thought and dealing with it has been one of the main struggles in the development of a rational society since the beginning of civilization. We humans love nothing more than a feeling of certainty, and hate nothing more than not knowing, and all this becomes more extreme in precarious times. That is when anyone who is willing to be agnostic and to say they are not sure that we do know for sure what we are talking about yet becomes all the more a target, because they threaten the feeling of certainty that then seems essential for our very survival. The results are the dogmas and fanaticisms that have dominated our history from… Read more »
I very much enjoyed reading this piece. Thank you for making it available, don’t stop doing what you do, and stay positive. I landed on your site by accident, but I will return again.
Thanks for a fantastic letter. Another nobody terrified about what’s happening around me…
Maybe I am out of the loop, maybe it is because I have entered a phase in my life where university culture and it peculiarities aren’t a big part of my life anymore, but I don’t see how writing what you just wrote is life-and-or-status-threatening in any way, shape or form. I adore rationality, critical thinking, open discussions and the weight of a sound argument. Growing up as the son of two physicists, I learned to love science and the fearlessness it can instill in the most powerless minds. Knowledge and the capacity for critical thinking are the big enablers, not just because they let you do awesome things and build powerful tools – they also instill you with a sort of fearless outlook on our world. Really: I don’t see how the current discussions about the need for structural societal changes based on the everyday suffering we see in… Read more »
As a ‘nobody’, we are in fact the vast majority. I appreciate your voice as I do all voices. What is getting lost in this entire discussion about free speech and the consequences of ‘wrong think’ is that these consequences are WAY out of proportion to the actual ‘harm’. Losing one’s livelihood and dealing with rape and death threats is a bit ludicrous for stating that only men have penises. A fact that was uncontroversial only 20 years ago. However, there’s much more to this than meets the eye. It’s quite sinister and involves money and power – of course. These media storms and online social justice wars are all a contrived well-funded distraction that is effectively shredding what’s left of human connection and compassion as a way of keeping us from noticing the final raping and pillaging of our planet’s remaining resources. This is an interesting in depth analysis… Read more »
As one nobody to another…thank you Angel…and I hope that your fears prove not to be justified.
I find the fact that we have all come to the conclusion that saying things on the internet is some sort of imperative. The Harpers letter is internettery, your article is internettery as is my comment. The solution is not to believe that we need to engage with everything on the interne. Your article is not ’important’, the simplest way not to risk consequences would be not to write something. Like nobodies did before we all wanted to be a small someone on the internet. Your ideas are sound personal values but others have different ones. Youre not going to establish a universal truth here. We should probably all say less.
A quick perusal of your impressive website suggests you are by no means a nobody, Mr. Eduardo, and you have much to lose if “cancelled”. Thanks for speaking out and publishing this piece under your own name.
I suspect if the letter were signed by a bunch of nobodies, the illiberal left would trash it on that basis too. They don’t care how they damn you, just as long as they damn you.
Angel, this is a beautiful essay. Bravo!
I feel fortunate to be of retirement age and not having to endure the sort of work environment that this author probably does. It took courage to write this article for publication, Angel, but it should not have. You should have been able to publish your opinions without fearing for your livelihood. Thank you for writing this.
Excellent article Angel. I’m in the same boat. My industry is also liberally orthodox. In fact a young group from my office are insisting on “structural change” at our company in response to the BLM protests. I don’t know how to openly disagree with some of their ideas without looking like a MAGA drooling racist. Even though I’m a life long progressive liberal.
I live in New York too. Reach out if you want. Maybe we could do a podcast or something.