On July 7, American magazine Harper’s published an open letter titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” signed by over 150 writers, intellectuals, journalists, historians and academicians that called for a culture that encourages open debate and greater tolerance towards differences in opinion. The letter is signed by Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling, Garry Kasparov, Salman Rushdie, Steven Pinker, Susan Madrak, Margaret Atwood among others.
Since the letter was published, it has ignited a debate on “Cancel Culture” and critics have questioned the letter for limiting its concern towards free speech at the social, cultural and institutional level and overlooking the government (in the US) for punishing citizens who criticise it in light of the recent Black Lives Matter protests.
One of the signatories, trans author Jennifer Finney Boylan retracted her support for the letter and tweeted, “I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.” Rowling’s signature on the letter has drawn particular backlash due to her recent comments on transgenders that were seen critically by many.
I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.
The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.
— Jennifer Finney Boylan ?? (@JennyBoylan) July 7, 2020
What does the letter say?
Some of the reasons that prompted the letter include the resignation of more than half of the board of the National Book Critics Circle over a statement that supported the Black Lives Matter movement, the case of David Shor who was fired from his job after he shared academic research that linked looting and vandalism by protesters to Richard Nixon’s 1968 electoral victory, The New York Times reported.
Signatories also include Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the Harvard Law school professor who quit his position as the faculty dean of an undergraduate residence after facing backlash for legally defending Harvey Weinstein. Recently, The New York Times opinion editor James Bennett resigned following a public outcry over the publication of an op-ed written by Senator Tom Scott who called for troops to be sent in to control the situation that ensued following George Floyd’s death. Some saw the decision to publish the op-ed as equivalent to putting the lives of Blacks in danger, following which a number of Black Times staffers virtually walked out.
The letter mentions that the “moral attitudes” and “political commitments” especially in the backdrop of the ongoing “powerful protests” for racial and social justice have weakened open debate and toleration of differences. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter states.
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The letter also refers to US President Donald Trump as a threat to democracy and an ally of “illiberalism”. “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 signatories urge that the way to defeat “bad ideas” is by “exposure, argument and persuasion” and not by trying to silence or “wish them away”.
“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,” the letter ends by saying.
The debate over the Harper letter
The letter has drawn mixed reviews, with some critics seeing it as pointless, redundant and some seeing the signatories’ calls for free speech as selective. Richard Kim, the enterprise director of Huffington Post called it a “deliciously funny moment” and in a tweet said, “Okay, I did not sign THE LETTER when I was asked 9 days ago because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach — and I said as much”.
Critics have also questioned the letter due to Rowling’s signature on it. Recently, Rowling’s comments on trans-genders drew criticism from the LGBTQ community, gender activists and actors including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint after she took exception to a piece titled, titled “Creating a more equal post-COVID-19 world for people who menstruate” and tweeted, “If sex isn’t real, there’s no same-sex attraction. If sex isn’t real, the lived reality of women globally is erased. I know and love trans people, but erasing the concept of sex removes the ability of many to meaningfully discuss their lives. It isn’t hate to speak the truth.”
On the other hand, some who support the letter are saying that the response to it and the ensuing backlash are the very reasons that the letter is required. Jesse Singal, a contributing writer for the New York magazine wrote in an article published on Reason, “The letter, which will also appear in the magazine’s October issue, was simply a stout defense of liberal values from people primarily on the left at a time it feels like these values are under threat.” He added that those opposing the letter have “ideological problems” and with laws regarding free speech.
Journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell, who is a signatory of the letter tweeted, “I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter.”
Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institute who also signed the letter tweeted, “I suspect part of what angers some commentators so much about the Harper’s letter is just how involved people of color were. For them, we’re only allowed to have one position, and if we diverge from that, we’re not truly what we are”.
So how is the letter connected to ‘Cancel Culture’?
Some critics also see the letter as a call for cancelling ‘Cancel Culture’. A column in the LA Times saw the letter as giving young people a “stern talking to” amid the pandemic and “a worldwide uprising against law enforcement’s long history of racist brutality”.
“In other words, a call to cancel cancel culture. OK, boomer. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.),” the column said.
The phrase ‘Cancel culture’ is recent and is mentioned in the Merriam Webster’s series called “Words We’re Watching”, which includes words that are increasingly in use but have not yet met their criteria for entry.
According to the dictionary, “Cancel is getting a new use. Canceling and cancel culture have to do with the removing of support for public figures in response to their objectionable behavior or opinions. This can include boycotts or refusal to promote their work.”
Recently, during his speech at Mount Rushmore, Trump denounced “Cancel Culture” claiming that the BLM movement was “openly attacking” the legacy of “every person” on Mount Rushmore. His remarks were in reference to calls for removal of statues of Confederate Generals in the US by protesters.