This past week Harper’s magazine posted a letter signed by over 150 academics and artists from across multiple disciplines urging respect for diversity of opinion and open debate, and it garnered quite a bit of negative attention, from multiple political perspectives. I’ve had a number of thoughts about it, and I’ve struggled to put them together in a coherent and thoughtful way (to be honest, I’ve been struggling quite a bit lately to assemble thoughts about almost anything in a coherent way). So here’s my best shot, assembled in bullet point form.
I really do not want to be having this conversation right now. As David French recently asked (paywall), “How does any of this help women like Marquita Johnson?”, a black woman who was sentenced to 496 days in jail for unpaid traffice tickets. People are suffering profound and often deadly injustice because of a dehumanizing criminal justice system, and we’re having to revisit fundamental and necessary discussions about public discourse.
There have been a number of criticisms raised against the letter. On the right, many took issue with its identification of Trump as an ally of “the forces of illiberalism”. If you don’t think the right has a “cancel culture” problem, I urge you to look into David French’s own story of online harassment for his criticism of Trump.
Some argue that the letter’s signatories are operating out of fear for their own irrelevance or cancellation, despite being “uncancellable”. This argument is self-contradictory. If these individuals are truly “uncancellable” because of their cultural clout, then it does not follow that fear of loss, whether financial or influential, was a significant motivating factor in their choice to sign it. I highly doubt J.K. Rowling is concerned that her money pile is in danger.
The “more specific specific counter letter” published by The Objective, a newsletter whose mission “is meant to confront inequities in coverage that have been recognized as rooted in the notion of ‘objectivity’”, took the original letter to task for beign vague and non-specific in its judgments, which is a great point of criticism. Arguably, the original letter was intended to be succinct and digestible, which may account for the lack of detail in the examples it cites.
The counter-letter points out how some of the Harper’s letter’s own signatories have also engaged in attempts to suppress voices that disagree with them. These actions should not have happened. Indeed, there is inredible potency to the counter-letter’s overall argument that for a long time, dissenting voices from non-white and non-heteronormative perspectives have been suppressed in journalism, academia, and publishing. I wholeheartedly affirm that their voices should be included and sometimes even amplified in public discourse, and heard out with earnest attention and respect. To do otherwise would be fundamentally opposed to the stated, if not lived, ideals encoded in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. I would also agree that arguments against “cancel culture” can be appropriated by reactionaries to justify ongoing suppression. Furthermore, websites like Professor Watchlist are just as guilty of the witch hunting and demand for ideological purity that the Harper’s letter decries, as are social media policies, NDAs, and refusing to allow Black reporters to cover BLM protests for fear that they might not be able to be objective (this last example is a demonstration of how racism and illiberalism often act hand-in-hand).
That said, the counter-letter also engages in self-contradiction and outright innaccuracy. (For this paragraph, I will use “HL” to denote the Harper’s letter, and “CL” to denote the counter-letter). The CL’s authors assert that the HL never addresses the suppression of marginalized voices in journalism, yet the CL identifies the HL’s mention that “journalists are barred from writing on certain topics” as referring to a Black journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who wasn’t permitted to write about BLM demonstrations. The CL also states that “The intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals has never been under threat en masse, especially when compared to how writers from marginalized groups have been treated for generations”, to which I would offer the Soviet Union as counter evidence. If the CL’s authors appended “in America” to that sentence, I would be much more inclined to agree, but I think its universal and totalizing sweep ignores the realities of non-American history, an example of the parochial thinking that listening to diverse voices is supposed to help us avoid. Finally, it only perfunctorily acknowledges the firing of David Shor after he shared a study about the effectiveness of nonviolent protests, dismissing it as anomalous, while completely ignoring the stories of non-powerful people who have lost employment and income for expressing concern about BLM demonstrations or not having done anything wrong at all. (Apologies for linking to the NY Post, but sadly it seems that the more “liberal” outlets have been disinclined to pick up this story). Never mind ignoring the physical violence a gay progressive senator claims to have experienced at the hands of protestors in Madison, WI.
Generally, the counter-letter and many of the original letter’s critics often fixate on the identity of the editor’s signatories without substantially engaging its larger point: that authoritarian and totalitarian demands for ideological purity can infect any social movement, and that we should acknowledge the necessity of good-faith disagreement in a pluralistic society and seek to preserve it while we also fight for justice for oppressed and marginalized groups. Injustice should not be responded to with further injustice.
Also, the letter’s critics also seem to completely ignore the presence of Nell Irvin Painter and Reginald Dwayne Betts as signatories. I hadn’t even heard of Betts, a poet who was sentenced to eight years in prison after a carjacking at the age of sixteen, before reading this letter. That maybe a result of my (hopefully diminishing) ignorance of black writers, or just poetry in general, or more likely my ignorance of both. Regardless, he seems fascinating, and the Harper’s letter brought him to my awareness. So, it seemed like the letter in this case actually served to amplify the voice of someone who has experienced the suffering that countless marginzalized people experience daily.
I care deeply about racial justice. I want to see tangible policy changes made that will end unjust policing and work to undo economic harm deeply rooted in our nation’s history. I also believe in a free society where people can seek the truth without fear of reprisal. A commitment to justice is inextricable from a commitment to truth. And a commitment to truth sometimes means we need to acknowledge that there are empirically verifiable realities that will not fit comfortably with the story we want to tell.
I know I have more thoughts, and I haven’t done justice to them, but I only have so much time and cognitive bandwidth to write.
So, what to do? For those who say they are committed to a just, pluralistic society, I make the following suggestions:
- Speak the truth.
- Assume good intent.
- Be willing to listen to and even amplify diverse perspectives, even if you disagree.
- Acknowledge the humanity and sacredness of those with whom you disagree.
- Continue to proclaim the necessity of justice if we are to have true peace. Marquita Johnson, and countless others need it.