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?
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
The signatories are decrying the way this mode of behaviour inhibits people from sharing their thoughts and ideas. That is not the hallmark of a healthy society. There is an inherent contradiction in a movement that claims to dismantle institutionalised oppression, yet thrives on fear mongering. As Rowling et al state, cancel culture threatens to destroy the lives and livelihoods of its victims for holding unpopular views. In this, it creates a social environment in which few have the courage to express themselves for fear of being attacked. Rather than create a more equal society, this practice fosters discord, fear and a social hierarchy built on conflict. Proponents include former Democrat Presidential hopeful Andrew Yang and free speech activist and broadcaster Giles Fraser.Explore
Cancel culture threatens democracy
Democracy is built on freedom of expression. In any democratic society therefore, giving space to multiple perspectives underpins the health of the state. The refusal to acknowledge contrary views is wrong. The signatories are right to protest this witch-hunting culture, brought to global attention by J.K.Rowling's "terf war". In this, it puts societies on the road to ideological authoritarianism. It is the same genre of control that Stalinist Russia used to turn government critics into "unpersons". When disagreement becomes a crime, democracy dies. Proponents include New York Times columnist Bret Stephens and Prospect journalist Eliane Glaser.Explore
The letter articulates our crisis of free speech
The signatories are right: free speech is being shut down. They are also right to use their platform to make noise about it. And they are doing so on behalf of the voiceless, who are more affected than any other group. A 2018 McLaughlin and Associates poll revealed that 54% of American undergraduates felt too intimidated to share their opinions, for fear of being cancelled. This was a 9% increase from the year before. Proponents include University of Pennsylvania Education Professor Jonathan Zimmerman.Explore
The Harper's Letter has been described as everything from entitled to tone-deaf
The Harper's Letter is tone deaf and offensive
We are at a point of severe global uncertainty. Global warming, a devastating economic crisis, the decline of the West, Trump's unstable and damaging Presidency, record unemployment, and a global health pandemic tearing from continent to continent. These signatories are offensively detached from reality. To choose their own popularity, book sales or Twitter followers as the cause to bring to the world's attention, is tone deaf. And shows just how little we should listen to their cries for attention. Proponents include Berkeley Professor Robert Reich.Explore
The entitled elite can't take criticism
There is nothing amusing about watching the world's most powerful people bandy together to strike out at "the mob". It is a complete failure to acknowledge their own privilege, or to understand that "cancel culture" has emerged out of a failure in traditional democratic channels to address injustice or be heard. Social media has become a single avenue through which communication is in any way democratised. It is a valuable form of protest that these signatories cannot bear, because they are so grossly entitled. Proponents include journalist and influencer Ernest Owens.Explore
We cannot excuse those - even celebrities - who defend prejudice
It is easy to forget the debates at the heart of these signatories' pleas. Those are around racism, transphobia, white supremacy, the agency a woman should have over her own body, and more. This is not a question of making mistakes. It is one of whether we can overlook morally insidious ideas that deny the right of people to exist, or to live equally amongst others. There can only be one answer: no. It is a troubling sign of just how long the road to dismantle systemic privilege is when an elite few choose to see these problems as open to debate. Proponents include Guardian journalist Nesrine Malik.Explore
The signatories celebrate all free speech but that which criticises them
They want to cancel 'cancel culture' and can't deal with the open debate they seek to foster. A closer look at the letter shows it's really a demand for public figures to be able to say what ever they want to, hold unpalatable views, and incite hatred without being held accountable. What is also fascinating is how free speech has become so central to the agenda of these people, on whose former lives it barely registers. They call for the right to free speech, except that which holds views that diverge from theirs. Proponents include Daily Beast reporter Laura Bradley and free speech activist Jillian York.Explore
Using a global platform to complain about being silenced is nothing but ironic
The irony of the Harper's letter was spelled out by journalist Judd Legum: “The signatories of this letter have bigger platforms and more resources than most other humans. They are not being silenced in any way.” Any suggestion that any criticism of their ideas has made them voiceless therefore smacks of pettiness.Explore
One side is talking about the quality of the debate, the other about its content and its participants.
Sides in the debate are talking past each other
There's no common ground on public discourse about Cancel Culture because sides are taking stances which are orthogonal, not opposing. One side requires a rational debate based on a classic understanding of freedom of speech; the other side denounces how people with a favoured position can impose their point of view without allowing any viable opposition.Explore
This page was last edited on Wednesday, 12 Aug 2020 at 15:25 UTC