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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

For argument’s sake

A letter in support of healthy debate has sparked off acrimony, in the worst tradition of the internet age

By: Editorial | Updated: July 11, 2020 7:25:37 am
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The letter is crowdsourced. Its words are contributed by over 20 people, a group spread across the political spectrum, drawn from diverse academic and creative disciplines, from children’s writing to linguistics, with minorities of colour, faith and gender represented. It sums up concerns about debate degenerating into discord which have circulated for months. But when this crowdsourced letter appeared in Harper’s Magazine, it immediately faced a blowback which highlighted the nature of the crowd that had written it, rather than the issues it raised.

Signed off by relatively old fashioned eminences including Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker and JK Rowling, the letter is being dismissed as a cry for help — please listen to us, because we dread being drowned out as the internet brings the barbarians to the gates. This ad hominem attack is not really a comment on the letter, but on our era, its preferred modes of communication, and the crabby register in which it speaks. It misses the heart of the matter altogether, and goes for the tender parts.

Modern civilisation is founded on the freedom of expression. And yet, as positions harden even in free nations and the space for experimentation, playfulness and craziness, which are the wellsprings of creativity, is narrowed, it is becoming difficult to speak one’s mind without material consequences. Jobs, careers and institutions are becoming collateral damage. In the US, for instance, academic jobs are being lost for discovering unpopular truths, the Poetry Foundation saw heightened tensions and the board of the National Book Critics Circle was gutted over Black Lives Matter. When rational people can’t speak for fear of consequences, the reckless lunatic’s voice rings out. Let the letter be, it is time to give the lunatics a hearing. If only for the sake of argument.

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