Yesterday, July 7, 2020, Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Discussion” to their website. The letter will also appear in the magazine’s October issue.
Signed by authors, journalists, and historians alike—including notable figures such as J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushie, Gloria Steinem, and Margaret Atwood—the letter applauds the recent protests for racial and social justice but condemns the lack of open debate and the intolerance for opposing viewpoints.
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.
The letter also touches on public shaming—more colloquially known as “cancel culture.”
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.
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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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.
This comes a month after James Bennet, the former Opinions Editor of The New York Times, resigned after facing criticism for running a controversial Op-Ed by a US senator. Rowling and Atwood are no strangers to cancel culture themselves. Most recently, Rowling was labeled a “TERF” on Twitter after criticizing an article’s use of the term “people who menstruate.” In 2018, Atwood faced criticism after penning an article titled “Am I a bad feminist?” in The Globe and Mail.
“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,” the letter says, “or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”
The letter concludes by calling for the end of “restriction of debate.” Instead of silencing those we disagree with, the letter says, we should engage them in conversation and persuasion.
We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
You can read the full letter, and see the complete list of signatures, here.