On 7 July 2020, Harper's Magazine published a letter signed by 153 prominent artists, writers and intellectuals including J.K.Rowling, Noam Chomsky and Margaret Atwood. Titled "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate" the signatories warned against the "intolerant climate" crushing free speech. They alleged that the rise of "cancel culture" whereby public figures are called out and boycotted for controversial views, was an assault on free speech. Others see their complaints as ironic, pointing to their elite status and use of a global platform to complain about being silenced. So, what do the two camps believe?
The SignatoriesShow moreShow less
153 notable signatories from across the political and ideological spectrum, including many academics and authors, claim cancel culture is eroding our freedoms, curtails free speech and is bad for democracy.
The signatories are fighting back against the culture of fear
Cancel culture threatens to destroy the lives and livelihoods of its victims for holding unpopular views. This inhibits people from sharing their thoughts and ideas and instead fosters discord, fear, and a social hierarchy built on conflict. That is not the hallmark of a healthy society.
If the media is diluted with hand-picked voices, then freedom of the press is essentially bypassed in favor of an echo chamber. Journalistic integrity is at stake, especially while the threat of “fake news” demands a higher level of dedication to both opinion and fact.
As stated in the Harper’s Letter, “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.” These supposed controversies range from literal job requirements to the generally expected fumblings that come along with being a human being.
This is not to say there are no moral wrongs, or that justice should not be served in many cases; however, the most constructive thing we can do for our society is to guide others down a redemptive path rather than crucifying them over it. Societal consequences have their place, but the loss of livelihood is no insignificant thing and should be reserved for only the essential times.
The firing of David Shor was one of the stated motivations for the letter's original author, Thomas Chatterton Williams. The circumstances behind the firing were so muddled between objective facts and emotional appeals that it becomes nearly impossible to discern legitimate motivations. For this reason, the letter serves to emphasize why intolerance is counterintuitive to progressive change.
There is an irony to people complaining about people complaining. This argument, and the inevitable backlash, is not constructive to continuing open debate so much as emphasizing a moral divide. Specific examples and circumstances are more helpful and relevant when making a point so fraught with controversy.