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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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.