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Defending the Letter “On Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine

On July 7th, Harper’s Magazine published a letter on its website that was signed by more than a hundred prominent writers, scholars, intellectuals and leaders of organizations. Most prominent among the prominent signers include J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame, Noam Chomsky, scholar and commentator, Margaret Atwood, novelist, Salman Rushdie, novelist who certainly understands the evil of censorship, and Wynton Marsalis, jazz musician. The letter is titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” and it was written in response to various recent instances of harsh punishment against unpopular or “controversial” statements. Here’s a sample of the letter:

We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

The letter ends with a clear statement of liberal, free speech belief:

“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

As a writer and liberal, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of the Harper’s letter. But, of course, not everyone agrees with the letter, like, for example, a lot of the “progressive” universe that believes that “cancel culture” is not real or much of a problem compared to racism and police brutality and “white privilege.” Even a few who initially signed the letter have repented of their support, primarily because they didn’t approve of all the signers, most notably J.K. Rowling, who has been accused of “transphobia.”

Said a Harper’s contributing editor, aristocratically named Thomas Chatterton Williams, on how the letter came about:

“The letter grew organically from an informal conversation among George Packer, Mark Lilla, Robert Worth, David Greenberg and myself about the climate of censoriousness we were noticing in cultural and media institutions and beyond. We began drafting a letter last month, and soliciting signatures soon after. Quickly these writers and academics began offering feedback, agreeing to sign or declining, and we incorporated the language, to varying degrees, of at least 20 different people by the end.”

And below is what Richard Kim of Huffington Post had to say about the Harper’s letter, according to The Wrap:

“Okay, I did not sign THE LETTER when I was asked 9 days ago because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach — and I said as much. I could honestly see how someone spent the same amount of time considering it and signed it because some of those words look good (free speech!) and hey a friend is asking. People make mistakes & that’s how social circles work. But what I don’t get are the smaller group of people who obviously painstakingly labored over those words and released them with great seriousness and pride and high fives. That hubris is truly what makes this a deliciously funny moment.”

“Self-important drivel,” indeed, but it comes from Kim and it ain’t very funny. This easy, breezy dismissal of the letter’s thoughtful defense of liberal intellectualism perfectly captures the sort of ill-considered righteousness of many on “the left.” It is a telling phrase when one is accused these days of “trolling” on the internet; what once was valid, even literary criticism is now a kind of being mean. The Harper’s letter is not, as Kim states, meant to “troll” those in disagreement: the letter was written and published and signed to change minds and return our democratic culture back to first principles.

Photo by Tuur Tisseghem on Pexels.com

Another post here on The Pacific will consider the case of J.K. Rowling, but for now it is clear that all writers, teachers and public intellectuals in general who agree with the Harper’s letter on open debate must speak out in favor of it. To show our appreciation for Harper’s courage, we must not waste our democratic right to defend our literary, intellectual democracy.

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