Weaponized ambiguity

Have you seen this thing, this whiny open letter published in Harper’s? Never have I been so disappointed in people I thought were smart. The collection of signatories includes Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Katha Politt, and Gloria Steinem, but it also includes JK Rowling, Jesse Singal, David Brooks, Bari Weiss, Jonathan Haidt, and, of course, Steven Pinker. Why, I don’t know. It doesn’t say anything, doesn’t propose anything, and avoids saying anything at all specific. It’s bad writing.

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 forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. 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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. 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, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. 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.

Shorter Harper’s letter: We elites deplore the fact that people use the internet to criticize us. It’s clear that whoever wrote this had some specific incidents in mind, but chose to remove any details in that second paragraph to prevent anyone from thinking, “wait, that was a fair response to writing stupid ideas.” And the “threat of reprisal” they are concerned about is that people might use the privilege of free speech to disagree with them. The “ideological conformity” they’re concerned about is the growing realization that modern conservatism has poisoned our civilization, is a rotten idea, and maybe, just maybe, rotten ideas ought not to dominate our government.

It all boils down to yet another paean to Free Speech being used to silence anyone who might criticize the status quo. How dare you recoil in disgust at my thinly-veiled call for eugenics, or my distortion of biology to decree that there are only two sexes, or my concern that uppity Blacks should calm down and wait for justice to gently lap against your toes? We have bills to pay, and if you make our conformity to the conservative establishment less bankable, we might have to struggle to pay off the house in the Hamptons!

Has David Brooks ever paid any price for his conservative inanity? Have any of the signers of that letter ever suffered for their ideas in any material way? I can at least appreciate the spiritual anguish of realizing that a huge chunk of the American public think they’re spoiled, pampered assholes, but I don’t think that’s a good reason to complain — in fact, complaining just confirms everyone’s opinions of them — and it’s reduced to silly absurdity by the fact that they say nothing about what’s to be done to end “this stifling atmosphere.” Maybe because what they actually want is to shut everyone else up.

I agree with this take.

This entire spectacle of a letter, published in one of America’s most prestigious magazines, signed by dozens and dozens of famous writers and journalists and academics, declaring breathlessly that “We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other,” is almost intolerably exasperating. Its very existence is a devastating counterargument to its central point. Would it be rude to point out to these esteemed thinkers that the fact that they were considered prestigious enough to be invited to sign this letter is proof that they are not, in fact, being silenced? That, rather, this collective wallowing in self-pity over “censoriousness” by a group of people employed by Harvard and Princeton and M.I.T. and the Brookings Institution and The Atlantic and The New York Times and a host of other elite institutions is evidence that perhaps they doth protest too much? If being a billionaire best-selling author like J.K. Rowling or the dean of Columbia Journalism School like Nick Lemann is somehow indicative of being particularly at risk for “public shaming and ostracism,” I would like to humbly volunteer to trade places with them. They may find a position of lesser power, money, and influence more to their liking.


  1. Paul K says

    Damn. I had read about it, but only now actually read the words and saw the names of those who signed it. What a sad, pathetic crock of shit. I fantasize that some of these folks will let us know that their names were put on this screed without their consent or knowledge.

    That some of them would include their signatures on ANYTHING supported by some of the others is pretty disappointing in itself, though I realize that they may have not known.

  2. says

    it’s reduced to silly absurdity by the fact that they say nothing about what’s to be done to end “this stifling atmosphere.” Maybe because what they actually want is to shut everyone else up.

    Well, of course! The cure for a stifling atmosphere is to stifle it. JK Rowling and the rest are simply asking the age-old question,

    Quis stifflest stifflers?

    Is this not wisdom? Are you not entertained?

  3. says

    @1 They need to appear hip and edgy and damn the consequences. For the rest of them, the only way to win an intellectual argument is to completely bastardize the intellect and what better way to do that than to assert that all ideas are equal?

  4. cartomancer says

    There do seem to be stories coming out about signatories who were tricked into signing this in some way. One or two have already withdrawn their support. I can imagine a lot of the leftist and progressive voices on there might have been hoodwinked.


    Of course, there are plenty of real issues around the stifling of debate, silencing of critical viewpoints and media complicity in ideological state power structures. Just ask any Marxian economist trying to get tenure at a US university or a presence on a government advisory panel over the last fifty years. I can imagine these might be what people like Chomsky and Atwood were thinking the letter referred to. But that’s not what this letter is addressing.

  5. Sonja says

    You’re right — if they can’t say what the ideas are that they are trying to protect and are being criticized for, they aren’t saying anything. In this letter, they are censoring themselves because stating some of the ideas they have defended would open them up to criticism. There’s so much irony.

  6. mvdwege says

    @3, Susan Montgomery:

    While I like and respect Noam Chomsky a lot, he has a huge blind spot where his libertarian Socialism and American “First Amendment über alles!” collide. Not the first time he blindly signed a “Free speech is good!” in defense of the indefensible before (see: Faurisson).

  7. oddie says

    I’m hoping this Chomsky thing is merely a repeat of his hustler article in that it is a stupid thing to have attached his name to and he will regret it

  8. Artor says

    I’m all for free speech, but some people have weaponized the concept. It’s a positive thing that the gov’t cannot punish you for unpopular ideas, but the claim that your words are not illegal is not always a point in their favor, and that in no way makes people’s criticism of your words out of line, illiberal, or part of “cancel culture.” Part of the point of free speech is that idiotic ideas can get shot down in public. Idiots are free to complain about that, and everyone else is free to conclude they are idiots, even if they are very smart in another sphere. But when your speech is used to attack and denigrate people who just want to live their lives in peace, then I invite you to drink a big glass of STFU.

  9. says

    I expected better of Chomsky than to co-sign anything with the likes of Brooks & Pinker, the embodiment of the detached white capitalist establishment shillery he’s spoken out against for 60 years, but people I respect have this nasty habit of shitting themselves in public, so maybe I should just get better at tempering my expectations.

  10. says

    @7 I’m rather dubious about that. In my experience, the attitudes on the far left regarding what we might call “identity politics” ranges from “paternalistic condescension” to “means to an end”. That is to say that they’ll happily use us against the people they don’t like but still hold the same presumptions as the furthest far-right person.

    And the pretense that, no, this is just about free speech is their way of having their cake and eating it.

  11. garnetstar says

    Anyone who doesn’t like reading criticism about themselves on the internet is welcome not to. Just turn off your device and go do something else. There is no rule that you have to read every comment. If it’s too much, delete your accounts and get on with your next book.

    And, anyone who puts their ideas or writing or comments and opinions out there to the public must expect criticism of them. (In fact, often the more original your ideas, the more criticism you’ll get. Although not in the case for some of these signatories: bigotry isn’t original.)

    I am reminded of a remark by Madonna, certainly someone who was often heavily criticized, but who now looks like a shining example of good attitudes, compared to these whiners. When told about some vicious criticism of her latest song, or whatever, she replied. “Well, you know what? Everyone’s got a right to their own opinion.” And she moved on.
    I’m sick of hearing the words “cancel culture” applied to every criticism. Samuel Johnson (17th century) wrote that “A writer solicits fame at the hazard of disgrace.” That applies to airing your opinions on the internet as well. So, get over it. (The death threats and the like are inexcusable, but that’s not what these signatories are whining about.)

  12. garnetstar says

    @14, so correct!

    There’s an old joke:

    Q: What’s the difference between life and art?
    A: In art, you have an editor.

    They should have availed themselves of that lucky difference.

  13. rblackadar says

    @10 Thanks for that link. The contribution by Nesrine Malik is superb — cuts to the heart of the issue. Damned fine writing.
    @12 So, you’ve had bad experiences with far left people, and Chomsky is far left, so…?? That might qualify as a heuristic, but it’s not logic.
    Chomsky is an interesting case, and for sure he has his biases and a position of privilege that cannot but have influence on what he writes. However, I’d really be interested to know what presumptions you think Chomsky shares with the furthest far-right person.

  14. says

    I noticed that they didn’t give any specific examples of a problem, or the reasons that anyone faced consequences. I guess there’s no problem if they can’t be bothered to show it. Maybe it looked more like pathetic whining when they included the concrete examples?

    I seem to remember things like this happening in response to elevatorgate.

  15. Rich Woods says

    @Marcus Ranum, @garnetstar:

    That letter reads like it was written by committee. I’m not quite sure how I made it to the end. Must have slept better last night than I first thought.

  16. wsierichs says

    “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces;”

    I assume this is about the incident of the New York Times running a far-right column. It was very poor editorial judgment to let something with false information or ugly threats run without letting someone point out the serious problems with the column. Either don’t run a column like that or use good editorial judgment in handling it. The fact that it didn’t go through the normal editing channel is pretty damning. I suspect there was some stuff going on in the background, and this incident was the last straw.

    The letter writers would be on stronger ground if they acknowledged that publications have a right to use their judgment on what they run and can move personnel around who don’t follow the publications’ rules for editing, and then have the letter offer a specific reason why the signers think the Times over-reacted or erred.

  17. says

    I skimmed the letter, and my first thought is, I don’t think an open letter is an appropriate place for vaguetweeting.

    Even if I’m being very charitable to the signatories, including the ones that did not see the list of cosigners at first, and are now retracting, I think it speaks very poorly of their understanding of communication. A vague letter full of platitudes does not just mean what it says explicitly. Each author, each signatory, and each reader likely has specific examples in mind, or at least has formed impressions on the basis of specific examples. By not naming any examples, you invite readers to fill in the gap with uncharitable examples, because after all, if your example was any good you wouldn’t have been afraid to bring it up.

    It’s just bad judgment to sign a letter full of empty platitudes meaning nothing. Because it does mean something, you just don’t understand what it is.

  18. KG says

    What a bunch of cowards! If they had identified the specific events they are complaining about, they would have risked having arguments brought against them, but they couldn’t even bring themselves to do that. Every one of the signatories whom I formerly respected (not many of them, I admit) has plunged in my estimation.

  19. KG says

    “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces;”
    I assume this is about the incident of the New York Times running a far-right column. wsierichs@19

    You can assume that, and you may well be right as far as the originator of this tripe, one Thomas Chatterton Williams, is concerned, but the signatories may all have had different examples in mind, and would disagree with each other over each of them. Who knows?

  20. garnetstar says

    @19, I think that’s the incident they’re referring to, also. And, I seem to recall that the excuse of the editor who allowed piece with false information and threats to be published was that he hadn’t read the piece before accepting it.

    Seems like, if your job is to edit, you ought to do that, which involves at least reading things before they’re published. So, bad job performance that got a lot of subscriptions canceled, quite reasonable to fire him.

    The whiners also remark on administrators who are dismissed because they just may have made “a stupid mistake.” I have to explain to 18-year-old students all the time that you must accept the consequences of your mistakes, no matter how well-intentioned you were, and that sometimes those consequences can be considerable. Didn’t expect to have to break this news to a bunch of alleged adults, who apparently believe that behavior that’s unacceptable to your institution can be excused if it’s just a “mistake”. Let alone that the last instance that I know about of an administrator being dismissed was for unacceptable behavior that was intentional, and no “mistake.”

  21. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The problem is that there are certain things that should not be matters for discussion–as an example whether members of a particular minority group are humans or cockroaches, whether ethnic cleansing is ever OK, whether to allow a member of a minority group to speak for him- or herself (including whether to call oneself him- or herself).
    Some discussions should not be up for discussion. At some point you wind up with an apology for intolerance masquerading as a plea for tolerance.

  22. mvdwege says

    @12 Susan Montgomery:

    Chomsky is not entirely clean, he does prefer class-based analysis over identity-based analysis, but he has stated that he is OK with ‘identity politics’ and that he’d prefer that activists treat all axes of under-privilege as equally important.

    So, he’s a bit old and not up to date on terminology, but he seems closer to advocating intersectionality than throwing minorities under the bus.

    Then again, the faux-left hates him almost as much as the alt-right does, so that should tell you something. No, I really think he got caught in his ‘free speech über alles’ trap, again. Not a good look, as a libertarian socialist he should be able to do the analysis that complete freedom on a non-level playing field is giving power to the already powerful.

  23. René says

    People, nor for that matter people, shouldn’t ever sign a petition of which they haven’t taken a screenshot before signing.

  24. DanDare says

    I remember a few years ago a story about a woman in the UK being arested for using the wrong pro nouns. I tracked the story down through layer after layer of blogs quoting one another. I found the police department involved and enquired. The woman in question had been arrested for stalking, harrasment and issuing death threats.
    This vague letter feels like the same kind of thing. A vague push against being punished for just normal stuff but if you dig to the source its actually behaviour they deserved to be thumped for.
    I bet lots of folks will point to this letter to say “see, free speech is being suspended”. Then it will become “a professor was arrested for defending free speech”.

  25. Pierce R. Butler says

    Have any of the signers of that letter ever suffered for their ideas in any material way?

    Salman Rushdie, for one, has at least been put to considerable stress and inconvenience by overstimulated critics.

    Pls allow me to x-post a ramble from Great American Satan’s comment thread:

    Apparently, signatory Thomas Chatterton Williams initiated this whole project.

    I can’t remember having heard of him before I read his recent Guardian piece, We often accuse the right of distorting science. But the left changed the coronavirus narrative overnight, which persuaded me to remember his name so as not to waste time reading more of his dishonest drivel.

    To save everybody the wasted minutes of plowing through it, he has here yet another “Those silly liberals don’t really care about the c-virus because they go out to protest police murders!!1!” piece:

    Yet even as the coronavirus lockdown threw 40 million Americans out of work – including Floyd himself – many progressives accepted this calamity, sometimes with stunning blitheness, as the necessary cost of guarding against Covid-19. … Public health experts – as well as many mainstream commentators, plenty of whom in the beginning of the pandemic were already incoherent about the importance of face masks and stay-at-home orders – have hemorrhaged credibility and authority.

    He disregards all the safety measures encouraged at, sfaik, all the George Floyd-related protests. He disregards all the campaigns to provide monetary relief to those losing jobs because of the virus. He disregards elementary journalistic ethics.

    So sad to see he’s roped more respectable names into echoing his sanctimonious snot. At least one early signatory, historian Kerri Greenidge, has already backtracked; I hope many others follow her lead.

  26. says

    @#29, Pierce R. Butler:

    So the lesson appears to be: signing such a vague open letter is a bad move, no matter what meaning you yourself read into it. That reminds me of something said years and years ago, back before Scott Adams revealed himself to be a cretin, on the Dilbert.com forum:

    I never, ever, EVER admit anything – Good or bad – Sooner or later the good stuff turns bad and the bad stuff just blends in with all the other stupid stuff-

  27. Stuart Smith says

    You’d expect the author of Manufacturing Consent to see what’s going on here. Is Chomsky sundowning?

  28. blf says

    DanDare@27, I don’t recall that story, but one I do recall (albeit imperfectly) was a reported claim allegedly made by a certain UK police force that Linux was a computer virus. Some digging managed to locate the constable involved, who confirmed they never said any such thing and were very much aware Linux is no such thing. Apparently, as I now recall, the criminal had been using a Linux host to serve up windro$$ malware, and the news / blog site which seems to have originated the false claim got completely the wrong end of the stick — and after being contacted, insisted the police must contact them before they might consider a correction.

  29. says

    @25 If you think that’s the case, you’re probably right. I’ve just been primed by the steady stream of people who say they’re liberal but really aren’t to think the worst. With regards to the “free speech trap”, it’s kind of sad that someone like that could get suckered so easily into allowing his values to be used against them.

  30. Frederic Bourgault-Christie says

    I am surprised Noam signed this. I think it may be because he is both a little out of touch and the kind of person who tends to go by the literal words of things. Noam, after all, has been unequivocal that not all topics are equally valid to explore. He’s said that even debating the Holocaust is to lose one’s soul. he criticizes choice of language all the time. There is just no way in which he is remotely on any of the freeze peachers’ side except in that he believes in the right to free speech. He’s not even an absolutist! In Understanding Power, he talks about things like harassment on the street and in workplaces, positive free speech access versus the literal right to say it, etc.

    Disappointing to say the least.

  31. mvdwege says

    @34 Frederic Bourgault-Christie:

    Chomsky is fairly clear in making a distinction in what he thinks is morally unfit for an individual to do, and what power society should have to forbid it. So while he may disagree with Holocaust denial, he has absolutely no problem saying that a Holocaust denier should be able to get published, see the Faurisson affair.

    His position is logical if you accept his axioms. Unfortunately, that position too often comes down to tut-tutting and shaking his head, while conceding that bad speech is perfectly OK because freedom of speech is important and should be fought with more speech. On that point, historically his actions have been perfectly clear.

    And yes, partially I think it is being out of touch. If he’d known the full context of the whining I think his position would have been “Theoretically you’re right, morally I can’t sign this”.

  32. lotharloo says

    I don’t have a problem with the letter and I find it pathetic that people in general no longer leave any topic up for “resealable disagreements”.

    When it comes to social justice and the need and demand for it, I think there are very solid moral and philosophical foundations for demanding basic human rights for minorities, trans people, LGBTQ+ people, religious minorities, etc and including “controversial topics”. However, I still think that while these foundations are solid, there are people on the left who go too far, they make stupid and sometimes people are stupidly and ridiculously “too woke”.

    To connect a personal feeling to this, as a non-white minority, sometimes I feel highly skeptical of some of the “white woke activists” because I honestly don’t feel they actually care about minorities and I feel that for those particular individuals this whole social justice is a power game between them and the right/alt-right with us used as pawns.