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 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. There is a legitimate crisis and a growing "intolerant climate" amidst us.
Democracy is built on freedom of expression. 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." When disagreement becomes a crime, democracy dies.
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.
The Harper's Letter has been described as everything from entitled to tone-deaf.
Using a global platform to complain about being silenced is ironic
The irony of the Harper's letter is clear: over 150 artists with millions and millions of followers summated, airing their grievances of being "censored." Any suggestion that any criticism of their ideas has made them voiceless therefore smacks of pettiness.
The signatories celebrate all free speech but that which criticises them
The signatories want to cancel 'cancel culture' and can't deal with the open debate they seek to foster. The letter is a demand for public figures to be able to say whatever they want to, hold unpalatable views, and incite hatred without being held accountable.
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.
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.
We are at a point of severe global uncertainty. To choose their popularity, book sales, or Twitter followers as the cause to bring to the world's attention is tone-deaf. It shows just how little we should listen to their cries for attention.
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.