Archive for July 13th, 2020

The Harper’s Magazine Letter

July 13, 2020

I am not very impressed with the open letter calling for the end of cancel culture that is appearing in Harper’s Monthly.  This is unexpected. When I first heard that a number of prominent liberals had signed an open letter advocating freedom of speech and thought and calling for an end to the increasing tendency to ostracise people who hold whatever opinions are deemed racist this week, I might have thought it would be something I could get behind. After all, I am a free speech fundamentalist. As far as I am concerned, there is no subject too dangerous to discuss. There are no opinions so repugnant that they should be censored.

So, what is my problem with this open letter? Well, to start with, it begins dishonestly. Look at the first paragraph.

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.

What has Donald Trump to do with the intolerant climate that has set in? The most he has done is call out the media on its dishonest and biased reporting. How has the Right been intolerant? Have conservatives been trying to get people fired for disagreeing with them? Most conservatives in the last few decades have been heavily influenced by libertarian ideas. There haven’t really been any prominent conservatives calling for censorship or canceling people. Even if there were, conservatives haven’t been in much of a position to cancel anyone. Leftists control the media, academia, the federal bureaucracy, even many large corporations. The left has won the culture war. They own the culture. If there has been 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, it is entirely on the left. All right-wing demagogues can do is plead for tolerance.

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.

All of this is very true, except that it is all being done by the radical and not so radical left. Mainstream conservatives have little enough power to censor. Anyone on the radical right has absolutely no power at all. being isolated from public fora. The writers of this letter are trying to spread the blame around for developments that are entirely the fault of their own ideological allies. Leftists are responsible for the free exchange of ideas and information being more constricted. It is the left that has developed 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. It is dishonest to pretend that this is not the case.

And this leads to the other problem I have with this letter. Let’s look at the final paragraph

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.

These are all fine sentiments, but I have to wonder where these people were when all this political correctness madness began? Where are they when conservatives were being canceled and de-platformed? They didn’t seem to be overly concerned about the restriction of debate by an intolerant society then. Some were even cheering the outrage mob on. I didn’t start seeing letters defending the right to free expression until the leftist outrage mobs started turning on their fellow leftists for being insufficiently woke.

While I appreciate the newfound commitment to free expression in at least a few people on the left, I am not going to take it very seriously until I see them defend the free speech rights of conservatives. They can begin by not calling people on the right racists and Nazis. Better still, I’d like to see them defend the free speech rights of actual racists and Nazis. It is easy enough to defend the rights of people you agree with, more difficult to defend the rights of people you disagree with, but only someone who is truly committed to freedom of expression would defend the rights of people who express ideas everyone else finds despicable. I’d like to see the people who signed display that level of commitment. Actually, I’d like to see that level of commitment from everyone. Maybe this letter will be a step in that direction.


%d bloggers like this: