The Open Letter Situation Shows What a Mess We're In

July 8, 2020  —  Tagged as: cancel-culture, free-speech

Yesterday Harper’s Magazine published an open letter about the free exchange of ideas and discourse, signed by many writers and public intellectuals. Signees included high-profile names like Salman Rushdie, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Malcolm Gladwell, and Noam Chomsky, among others. Although the population of signees seemed to be mostly left-of-center, it represented a surprising amount of ideological diversity within that left-leaning sphere, with both moderates and more hardcore lefties seemingly finding common ground. The content of the letter was sensible and well-written for the most part (more on the un-sensible part later), voicing support for justice and equality while speaking against cancel culture and intolerance of dissenting views. It closed by arguing for the importance of open discourse to culture, freedom, and democracy itself.

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.

When I first saw the letter, my reaction was hope: it was a reminder that there are still people on the left who care about free speech and open discourse, and who realize that cancel culture needs to be stopped. My optimism was dampened a bit when I saw that the letter also takes brief detours from its main point to take aim at Donald Trump and the right. “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.” We get it, you hate Trump. I don’t like him either, and I can see the argument for him being in opposition to some liberal values, but what evidence is there that he’s a credible “threat to democracy?” Seems hyperbolic (not unusual for Trump-related discourse). You can argue that Trump makes stupid decisions, that he violates norms, that he’s more concerned about his ego than his country, or that he’s unfit for the office of the presidency, but he simply does not have the capacity to bring down American democracy, even if he wanted to. I’m not convinced there’s any purpose for his inclusion in this letter other than virtue signaling.

Then there’s this bit about cancel culture (emphasis added): “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.” What a lovely little slap in the right-leaning direction. Why are you mentioning the radical right here? Just to affirm that they’re bad? As if to say “obviously the right does this shitty thing, but we usually don’t because we’re better?” I’m not saying the right hasn’t suppressed discourse or cancelled people. They had a lot more cultural power in the past, so they’ve certainly driven cancellations and firings and silencings. Even nowadays they do nab a successful cancellation once in a while. But right now, at least in the United States, the left is the side with the greatest power to get people fired, and thus the threat of cancel culture is currently greatest from the left. It’s important to acknowledge that reality—not because any “side” is morally superior or less likely to cancel than the other, but because the pendulum swing of cultural power dictates which brand of silencing is currently the most likely (and thus the most dangerous).

Even in a letter acknowledging the left’s problems with stifling discourse, there’s still that irritating trace of partisan superiority and smugness. It’s a classic case of deflection, like a criminal saying “sure, I robbed the bank, but look at that other guy, he’s much worse than me.” This is not about the other guy. It’s about YOU, the left, and what the left is doing. Trump didn’t force the left to cancel everyone with a dissenting opinion, they did that all on their own. Have the balls to take responsibility instead of blaming everything on bad orange man and the right.

Regardless, any critiques that I had of the letter being mildly anti-conservative were overshadowed by Twitter’s explosion of criticism for it apparently being too anti-progressive. This is a letter defending free speech and open discourse, values that are fundamental to American society and culture. But it was immediately accused of bigoted implications, being transphobic, and making people feel “unsafe.” Vox journalist Matthew Yglesias was heavily criticized by his colleagues for signing, and one of them sent a public letter complaining about him to the editors at Vox. She claimed she didn’t want Yglesias to be punished, but emphasized that his signature on the letter “makes [her] feel less safe at Vox and believe slightly less in its stated goals of building a more diverse and more thoughtful workplace.”

But she definitely didn’t want him to be punished, guys. She just wanted the editors to know it made her feel unsafe, and not do anything about it.

Meanwhile, author and trans activist Jennifer Finney Boylan apologized for signing the letter because she “did not know who else had signed that letter,” presumably referring to being listed alongside alleged transphobes like J.K. Rowling. Author and professor Kerri Greenidge, who initially appeared on the list, tweeted that she “[does] not endorse this Harpers letter” and subsequently sought a retraction (her name is now gone from the letter). Note that she did not say “I never signed this,” but merely “I do not endorse it.” I’m trying to think of a charitable interpretation of this, but it’s hard to imagine how she would have accidentally signed a letter she did not support, and awfully convenient that the retraction came after the backlash.

At any given moment, Twitter’s focus was either on how subtly bigoted the letter’s contents were or on who had signed it. Half the signatories had already been cancelled for some unwoke offense or another, and thus anyone who signed on with them was also tainted by association. There was much scoffing about how the signatories had platforms and had not been silenced (yes, they’re speaking up for others who feel they can’t, that’s exactly the point), as well as a lot of whataboutism and speculation on the letter’s priorities. People are being killed out here, and these stupid whiners are complaining about being yelled at on Twitter! They deserve it, they were saying bigoted things anyway! A bunch of these signatories have caused harm, so the message is invalid! These were tweets from well-known blue-check people on the left, with thousands of likes and self-righteous comments. There were also accusations of hypocrisy for certain signatories, and those criticisms may have been valid, but even the valid criticisms reflected a narrow-minded focus on who was speaking rather than what was being said. I saw precious little acknowledgement that open discourse is indeed important, or that the potential loss of livelihoods resulting from cancel culture is a concern worthy of discussion.

The painful conclusion is that the left, or at least the left represented on Twitter, really does not give a shit about free speech anymore. In fact, free speech and open discourse are now considered “dogwhistles” only expressed by bigots. Freddie DeBoer described this eloquently already:

How can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today.

So…that’s where we are. Many on the left have abandoned the values of free speech, or believe it to be so utterly insignificant that an open letter about it deserves unqualified scorn. Meanwhile the lefties who think open discourse is still important are a.) already cancelled and thus disdained by the rest of the left, or b.) distracted by dunking on Trump and the right and pointing out how much worse they are, instead of focusing on the plank in their own eye. Some liberals seem to think that the excesses of cancel culture and silencing speech will simply resolve themselves once Trump is out of office. Trump is the source of all problems, right? Of course he’s not. The illiberal nature of the modern left is an internal problem. Trump accelerated the process by motivating an overcorrection, but this was never really about Trump. It’s about the fact that the left now only supports speech that they agree with.

It’s hard to be optimistic about situations like this. But this is also when it’s important to remember we’re talking about the reactions of Twitter, which isn’t real life. Do most lefties IRL share the opinions of Twitter social justice warriors that open discourse is a bigoted dogwhistle? Or do they still agree that free speech and debate and inquiry are cornerstones of our society? I honestly don’t know. But I hope that there are still more free-speech liberals out there than we think. I have to hope.

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