Is it time to back away from “cancel culture,” which calls for demonizing the voices of those whom others deem to be transgressors? This is an important question. Now 150 writers and other figures have published a letter addressing it in Harper’s — and done a terrible job of it.
Analyzing the Harper’s letter
The letter appears on Harper’s site with the signatures of Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, J.K. Rowling and many others. As I often do in this space, I’ll post the whole thing and analyze it a bit at a time.
I’ll use italics to indicate passive voice, which pervades this piece of writing. The italics do not appear in the original.
A Letter on Justice and Open Debate
July 7, 2020
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.
Ask yourself this as you read this letter: Who is doing what? And what are we supposed to do? The only people in this first paragraph are “we” (three times), Donald Trump, and (presumably) right-wing demagogues. Along with that, we have mysteriously broad and vague sentence subjects including “our cultural institutions,” “powerful protests,” “wider calls for greater equality,” “this needed reckoning,” “the forces of illiberalism,” “resistance,” and “democratic inclusion.” This opener sets the tone: we are about to read about vague collections and tides of opinion sloshing against one another, rather than the actions of actual humans — except of course for the prime demon, Donald Trump.
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.
Clear and persuasive writers like Steven Pinker and J.K. Rowling signed this, but they sure didn’t write it. It’s a passive shriek of indignity that decries a societal shift rather than citing any specific action. It might as well just say “Bad shit is just sorta happening.”
The cancel culture is real (even thought it isn’t mentioned by name here). But we need to make a distinction. Individuals have every right to criticize other individuals — including, for example, those who have criticized J.K. Rowling for her continually repeated transphobic comments. Institutions and platforms, as well, can make choices. Universities can fire professors, Twitter and Facebook can kick people off their platforms, and publishers can decide what to publish. The problem with a sweeping set of generalizations like this (along with the vague set of passive events that the letter describes) is that any one of these institutions can say “well, that’s not us.” If you have a problem with what Twitter did, or Indiana University did, or Hachette did, then criticize them. Decrying cancel culture is like deploring rainstorms — it only calls attention to your whining.
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.
Here’s the thing: anyone can publish anything right now. Set up a blog and publish it. Put it on Amazon with Kindle Direct Publishing. Nobody’s stopping you.
If it’s controversial, you’ll have all the debate you can handle.
Who is silencing anyone? No one has a right to be published by Random House, a right to a Twitter account, or a right to use Facebook to publish lies about what day is Election day.
Institutions have always restricted what could get published. In the middle ages, the church banned printers from printing sacrilegious books. In 2018, Milo Yiannopoulos lost his publisher and platforms for being a racist bigot. I’m fine with that. There is no “right to have your views amplified.”
The ironic thing for me is that I agree things have gone too far. There’s not enough debate in universities, and political correctness can go too far. I don’t want people tearing down statues of George Washington.
If you want to make a case for this, I’d like to see it. But you’ll have to do a lot better than the pious pile of mush that Harper’s just published.