Letter, counter-letter, cancel culture and freedom of discourse

If you were to put a label on my political leanings (but why should you?), I would probably be characterized as a progressive-liberal type. I support universal healthcare, the green new deal (or something like it), curbing the power of multinational corporations, electoral reform, labor rights, women's rights, and minorities' rights (including black, brown, gay, trans, and so forth). Indeed, I often have a hard time understanding why anyone would not support the above causes (I'm sure it's a failure of my imagination).

But I also value my independent critical thinking, biased as it may be (we all have biases anyway, the important thing is to recognize them and work on them). So when this letter was published recently in Harper's Magazine, followed by this counter-letter, I decided to sit down and carefully read them to figure out what I think about the issue those letters address (though, in fact, they don't even seem to agree on what that issue actually is!). I suggest you now pause, read the letters, and then come back here. I'll wait.

Done? Good, let's proceed.

What henceforth I will refer to as the original letter was spearheaded by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Black writer who believes "that racism at once persists and is also capable of being transcended -- especially at the interpersonal level." Which sounds about right to me. The letter itself is short, but also -- unfortunately -- a bit vague. This will become relevant in a minute.

It opens by mentioning the recent protests about social and racial justice and supporting what the authors regard as "overdue demands for police reform." Then it introduces the target topic: "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."

It continues: "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."

The authors then list six general classes of scenarios they find troublesome, though they do not provide any specific examples. To be fair, this was probably a good move in some respects, because any example cited would have directed attention to the specifics of the example itself, diverting from the general point. But that strategic choice has also made the letter a bit too vague for an in-depth evaluation.

Nevertheless, the letter concludes: "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. ... We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences."

When I first read it I thought this was so mild that it would be largely ignored, as many such open letters are. Then I looked at the list of signatories. There are 153 of them, including the following: Margaret Atwood, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Malcom Gladwell, Rebecca Goldstein, Jonathan Haidt, Wynton Marsalis, John McWhorter, Steven Pinker, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, and Fareed Zakaria.

The names are relevant for two reasons: they represent a broad cross-section of prominent intellectuals, including women and minorities. But they are also, most of them, highly visible authors.

Contrast this with the signatories of what I will call the counter-letter, 164 in total, also -- or arguably even more -- diverse, but less well known to the general public. 25 of these are not actually signatories, since they did not list their names. The authors explain: "Many signatories on our list noted their institutional affiliation but not their name, fearful of professional retaliation. It is a sad fact, and in part why we wrote the letter."

Let's take a closer look at the counter-letter. It begins in this fashion: "[The letter was written by many] prominent journalists, authors, and writers, including J.K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell, and David Brooks, published [as] an open call for civility in Harper's Magazine. They write, in the pages of a prominent magazine that's infamous for being anti-union, not paying its interns, and firing editors over editorial disagreements with the publisher."

This is not the best of starts. First, the choice of the three people picked as exemplars is interesting and likely not random. Brooks is a well known conservative New York Times columnist, and Rowling has been involved in an acrimonious social media debate (complete with abuse and death threats) about transgender issues (more on this below). I don't pay enough attention to Gladwell to know why he was singled out. But there was no mention of stalwarts of progressive liberalism, like Chomsky, or feminists like Stein, or prominent Black academics like McWhorter and artists like Marsalis.

More problematic is the obviously ad hominem attack against Harper's magazine. I'm not a fan of it, but it is being accused of three things that are hardly unique to it: being anti-union, which is -- unfortunately -- the norm in the United States; not paying its interns, which -- again unfortunately -- almost nobody does in this country; and firing editors because of disagreements with the publisher, the very thing that the authors of the letter later on praise the New York Times for having done recently.

"The signatories, many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country."

Setting aside that many of the signatories are not white, or not men, yes some of these people are wealthy (definitely not all of them), and they do have access to mainstream media. That's why they are influential intellectuals. But it is everyone's right to worry about their job, and everyone's duty to be concerned about stifling discourse. Being white, or wealthy, should not be a disqualifier.

"The irony of the piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalized voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia, and publishing." 

They actually nudge in that direction, right at the beginning of the letter, when they talk about protests for overdue social and racial justice. But the target of the original letter was different: it was the quality of societal discourse. While social and racial justice are of paramount importance, there still are plenty of other legitimate topics of conversation. Say, the war in Syria. Remember that one?

"In reality, their argument alludes to but does not clearly lay out specific examples, and undermines the very cause they have appointed themselves to uphold. In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people -- particularly Black and trans people -- can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter's greatest concern."

As I mentioned above, it is unfortunate (though understandable, for the reason I referred to) that the original letter does not provide specific examples, and we'll get back to that again below. But I honestly don't see how the letter undermines the cause that it claims to uphold. The signatories are not complaining about being criticized, they are complaining about verbal abuse, death threats, and public shaming. None of that should fall into the category of "criticism."

"The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words, in what seems like an attempt to control and derail the ongoing debate about who gets to have a platform."

The writers use general, and therefore by definition vague, language. And that's a problem. But I didn't read anything that struck me as intentionally nebulous, and the notion that the intent is to control and derail debate is an unwarranted assumption, at least on the basis of what the letter actually says.

"The instances they reference are not part of a new trend at all." 

This is an interesting point, on which I think both sides are clearly deficient. It is true that the authors of the original letter talk about trends without backing this up with any quantitative evidence. But the authors of the counter-letter just as self-assuredly claim that there are no such trends, also without any evidence to back them up. The reality is that we have a large number of anecdotes, and that in the absence of systematic sociological studies neither side should make pseudo-quantitative or definitive statements.

After these preliminaries, the bulk of the counter-letter discusses the six points raised by the original letter (which is much shorter), attempting to provide examples where the original failed to do so. Let's look at each point in turn.

1. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces?

"When the signatories claim that 'editors are fired for running controversial pieces,' they seem to be arguing it's a problem that James Bennet, the former Opinion editor of the New York Times, was fired. In reality, Bennet resigned because Black staffers risked their jobs to publicly point out that Bennet had signed off on an opinion piece [by a sitting US Senator] that called for the use of the nation's military against its own citizenry for exercising their First Amendment rights."

Right. The question is whether the firing of the NYT editor was justified or not. I read the truly indecent editorial by the US Senator in question, and followed the controversy. My own judgment was that the editor who decided to publish the piece was right when he argued that it is in the public interest to see what exactly elected representatives in the highest realms of government think and act (i.e., vote) accordingly. Of course, my opinion is just that, an opinion, and my reasons can be challenged. And that's okay, it is precisely what the original letter is asking.

2. Books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity?

"Could be a reference to Apropos of Nothing, Woody Allen's book that was dropped by Hachette, a major publisher, after employees protested Allen's history of sexual assault allegations. The book was later picked up by a different publisher."

I followed that story closely as well, and I was pissed at Hachette, which happens also to be my publisher. The Woody Allen story is a notoriously complex one, and as the authors of the counter-letter acknowledge, there are only allegations against him. So this is a clear example of precisely the sort of things the original letter was worrying about: the vilification by public shaming and social media campaigns of people who have not been proven guilty in a court of law. And since the party making the allegations has in any case had plenty of public platforms to explain their position, I would have liked to read Allen's take on his life and career. (The book has since been picked up by Arcade.)

3. Journalists are barred from writing on certain topics?

"Here, [the signatories of the original letter] could be talking about how just last month, at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a Black journalist was told she could not cover protests because she was biased because of one tweet on protests. But if this is the example they are referencing, then they misunderstand the situation entirely. Alexis Johnson's situation is not unique, nor is it a new phenomenon for a Black writer to be silenced by her editors. Black and brown journalists have been barred from writing on certain topics because of our perceived lack of 'objectivity' for decades."

How is this a "mistake"? The original letter is precisely about why this sort of episodes should not happen, regardless of whether the victim is Black, brown, white, man, woman, lesbian, gay, transgender, and so forth.

4. Professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class?

"This could be a reference to Laurie Sheck, a New School Professor, who said the N-word when referencing a James Baldwin piece in class. Yet, she is still employed and has classes listed for spring 2021. ... Black, brown, and trans professors have been harassed by conservative websites, threatened, and had careers ruined for speaking about our own experiences or confronting systemic racism."

We don't know, of course, if the authors of the original letter were in fact referring to Prof. Sheck (here is the story anyway). But the fact that she is still employed by the university isn't the point. The point is that she was investigated by the school for doing her job as a teacher. Moreover, the fact that minority professors have been harassed by conservative websites, while awful, is a non sequitur, since the point was about instructional investigation carried out by academic institutions. Last time I checked, conservatives web sites do not fall into that category.

5. A researcher fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study?

"This is likely about David Shor, who tweeted a summary of an academic paper by Professor Omar Wasow and was then fired from his job at Civis Analytics, a nonpartisan [actually, liberal leaning], nonprofit research firm. It could very well be true that Shor was fired for posting the study. The facts of the situation are unclear and the company has said it will not comment on personnel matters. If Shor was fired simply for posting an academic article, that is indefensible, and anomalous."

The facts aren't that unclear, actually, it seems obvious to anyone who has followed the affair that Shor was fired precisely for that reason (here is an article that is, in part, about that episode). Still, the authors of the counter-letter agree that, if that truly were the case, the action was indefensible. But then they go on -- with no evidence -- to state that it was anomalous, and therefore dismissible.

6. The heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes?

"The vagueness of the letter confers protection from criticism most especially in this section."

Yup, that's true. I don't know what the original letter was referring to here, and so there is no point in discussing it.

The counter-letter then continues:

"The problem they are describing is for the most part a rare one for privileged writers, but it is constant for the voices that have been most often shut out of the room."

Probably, though again I'd like to see quantitative data. But is the inference that a problem is not a problem if it happens to one group rather than another? Also, nowhere in the original letter we find a defense of white male elites. Only a defense of robust yet civil discourse. This, I should think, applies across the board.

"While the Harper's letter is couched in the events of the last few weeks, it doesn't exist in a vacuum. It is actively informed by the actions of its writers, many of whom have championed the free market of ideas, but actively ensured that it is free only for them."

Of course the letter does not exist in a vacuum, and the underlying cultural climate should be examined. Indeed, the letter is about cultural climate. But the accusation that "many" of the signatories have actively discriminated against minorities is unsubstantiated, and certainly wrong for a number of them. With a couple of exceptions:

"A number of the signatories have made a point of punishing people who have spoken out against them, including Bari Weiss (who made a name for herself as a Columbia University undergrad by harassing and infringing upon the speech of professors she considered to be anti-Israel, and later attempted to shame multiple media outlets into firing freelance journalist Erin Biba for her tweets)."

I have not checked into the details of that incident, but I'm confident this is correct. If so, Bari Weiss should not have been a signatory of the original letter. This, however, doesn't condemn the rest of the group by association. We are not supposed to condemn entire groups by association, are we?

"What gives them the right to use their platforms to harass others into silence, especially writers with smaller platforms and less institutional support, while preaching that silencing writers is a problem?"

I did not see any attempt to silence anyone in the letter, and as far as rights go, in an open society we all have the right to use whatever platform we have access to in order to put forth our ideas. Yes, access is most definitely not equal, and this is an urgent issue that only recently has started to be addressed. But, again, there seems to be an assumption that there is only one set of issues that it is valid to be concerned about, which is most definitely not the case.

"Rowling, one of the signers, has spouted transphobic and transmisogynist rhetoric, mocking the idea that trans men could exist, and likening transition-related medical care such as hormone replacement therapy to conversion therapy."

Ah, now we come to the infamous case of J.K. Rowling. I have never been a Harry Potter fan (don't like magic, prefer science fiction), but was so surprised by the controversy surrounding her that I looked into it in detail, including following the author on Twitter to see what exactly she was writing, and how her critics were responding.

Rowling has indeed argued controversial points. For instance that we should be cautious before letting children who are confused about their gender identity undergo hormonal and surgical procedures, on the ground that (studies show) a high percentage of such cases resolve themselves without need of drastic intervention. She has also written that lesbian women should not be shamed if they refuse to have sex with a transgender woman who has not undergone an operation (and looks, therefore, male from the point of view of her sexual organs). Finally, she has argued -- together with prominent female sports figures like Martina Navratilova -- that men who simply declare themselves women (i.e., they do not undergo any bodily modification) should not be allowed to compete in women's sports, because they would have an unfair advantage.

Are these considerations transphobic? That depends on what you mean by that word. These certainly are complex issues that depend on an intricate intersection of biology, culture, and politics. As such, they should be discussed, and people on either side should not be vilified or threatened. That, again, is how social discourse in an open society is supposed to work.

One of the co-signatories of the original letter, Fareed Zakaria, who was born in India, who is Muslim, and whose father was an Islamic theologian, once got accused of Islamophobia for suggesting that many current Islamic countries do have a problem with extremism and religious fundamentalism. I should think that that was an uncontroversial statement of fact, not the ranting of an anti-Islamic zealot (which Zakaria certainly isn't).

"It's also clear that the organizers of the letter did not communicate clearly and honestly with all the signatories. ... One of the signers, author and professor Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is also a trans woman, said on Twitter that she did not know who else had signed it until it was published."

I have signed a number of open group letters, and it is hard to imagine that the names of all the signatories were not available to all additional potential signatories. Still, essentially Boylan is saying that regardless of the content of the letter (which she apparently approved, when she decided to sign it), she finds an association with J.K. Rowling so despicable that she regrets having signed on. This is ironic, because it is precisely the sort of problem the authors of the original letter are concerned with.

"Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism."

No, the original letter most decidedly does not ask for any such thing. Unless by "criticism" one means harassment, shaming, and death threats.

"Their letter seeks to uphold a 'stifling atmosphere' and prioritizes signal-blasting their discomfort in the face of valid criticism."

Setting aside that the "stifling atmosphere" cited in the original letter is what the authors criticize, not uphold, again, criticism is not the problem -- regardless of whether it is valid or not. We have the right to criticize whoever, for whatever reason. Whether our criticism is on target may emerge in the course of an open debate where people take us to task -- facts and arguments in hand -- for what we said. Can we all agree on that?

The interesting thing about this letter and counter-letter is that the exchange actually epitomizes precisely what the original letter advocates. This is the way we should argue. But it is noticeable that the point and counter-point saw the light on the websites of two magazines. Not on social media.


P.S.: even though I am no wealthy author with big platforms, I confess some uneasiness even publishing what I consider the mild and hopefully balanced comments above. In large part because I'm an (increasingly older) white man. We'll see what the reception is going to be, and which side is going to be proven right in this case.

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