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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 Antis Show more Show less

The Harper's Letter has been described as everything from entitled to tone-deaf.
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The entitled elite can't take criticism

The world's most powerful people striking out at "the mob" is a complete failure to acknowledge their privilege or to understand that "cancel culture" is a valuable form of protest that has emerged out of a failure in traditional channels to address injustice.
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Proponents


Context

Immediately after the release of the Harper's letter, journalists and social media users began bashing it for the background of its signatories, many of whom were already unpopular on platforms such as Twitter because of past remarks that had gotten them "canceled." The signatories were dismissed as being too entitled and elite.[1]

The Argument

The 153 writers, journalists, academics, and artists who signed and wrote this letter are not the oppressed and silenced of our society. The fact that they had enough prestige to be invited to sign this letter and that their platform was one of the most popular and accredited magazines in the world should be a sign of this already. Authors such as J.K. Rowling, Malcolm Gladwell, and Margaret Atwood, public figures like Gloria Steinem and Nell Irvin Painter, and academics like Noam Chomsky and Meghan Daum have dominated almost all major platforms for decades. Even if free speech was an important value to defend, they are not the ones who have had their speech stripped away from them, and therefore they also should not be the most vocal in demanding it for the people who have supposedly lost it.[1]. These people do not fear a loss of speech. They fear a loss of relevance as society progresses, and their old values are criticized. This is especially true given that many signatories of the magazine are not simply innocent academics with an opinion. They are public figures who had recently been at the brunt of cancel culture. For example, Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., the Harvard law professor who recently lost his position as faculty dean over his legal defense of Harvey Weinstein, was also a signatory of the letter.[2] Perhaps the most familiar name of all was J.K. Rowling, whose transphobic remarks caused an uproar on Twitter in June 2020.[3] It is not a coincidence that the people who have been loudly arguing for all their lives are only complaining now that people have finally begun arguing back.

Counter arguments

Who signed the letter should not matter as much as what the letter said. The fact that some controversial figures like Ian Buruma and J.K. Rowling signed the letter does not mean that its messages of free speech and liberalism aren't legitimate. Regardless of its signatories, it is still important to discuss how cancel culture has affected people's ability to speak and express their opinions. To oppose a worthy message simply because of the identity of its signatories only feeds into people's complaints about identity politics. The letter was published as part of a long-running discussion on speech and freedoms with the author and various historians and academics. The timing of the letter and the recent rise of the Black Lives Matter movement was coincidental. Not all signatories came from privileged and wealthy backgrounds. Its primary writer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, is African American himself, and the letter was deliberately circulated to collect signatures from a more diverse range of people. The signatories included leading Black intellectuals, such as Nell Irvin Painter, John McWhorter, and Reginald Dwayne Betts, as well as many LGBTQ+ academics.[4] Some signatories may have been controversial, but many were also qualified to speak on the subject. There is no point making this a fight over who should be able to talk about what.

Framing

Your identity matters in whether or not you can have a qualified opinion on an issue.

Premises

[P1] Many signatories of the letter were people who were wealthy and elite to begin with, and not people who lacked platforms on which to speak. [P2] The letter was only created because the elite who had recently been canceled could not take criticism.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] Your identity shouldn't determine whether your point is valid. Arguments should be counted either way if they are legitimate. [Rejecting P2] Although some signatories were controversial, many signatories came from backgrounds that fully qualified them to speak on the issue.

Further Reading

The original letter: https://harpers.org/a-letter-on-justice-and-open-debate Background on cancel culture: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53311867

References

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/08/letter-harpers-free-speech/
  2. https://www.bostonmagazine.com/education/2019/08/13/ronald-sullivan-jr/
  3. https://www.scotsman.com/arts-and-culture/books/jk-rowling-twitter-why-harry-potter-author-was-accused-transphobia-twitter-2877977
  4. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/07/arts/harpers-letter.html

This page was last edited on Thursday, 10 Sep 2020 at 01:33 UTC

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