Everyone’s been talking about the “Harper’s Letter,” created at the behest of Harper’s editor Thomas Chatterton Williams and signed by a crapton of well-known people. I’m basically very supportive of free speech, in both law and culture, so it sounded like something I’d have signed if asked. (Not that anyone would ask me.) On reading it, however, I’m not so sure.
To be clear, I wouldn’t much care who else signed it. Signing a statement like this signals an agreement with the terms of the statement, not with everyone else who signed it. This doesn’t mean you should never check who else is signing something you’re asked to sign, because if all the other signers have some well-recognized affiliation — the Democratic Party, tech entrepreneurs, Juggalos — signing the statement could give other people the false impression that you’re a member of those groups when you’re not. But in this case, the list of signatories is pretty diverse, so I wouldn’t be too concerned.
The letter begins, as these things often do, with a recitation of claims, and I guess that’s the first of my concerns.
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.
See, I’m not so sure about that. I’m certainly hearing more about “cancel culture” these days than I used to, and I keep hearing about questionable incidents of employers being pressured to fire people for things they’ve said, but I don’t know if that represents an actual change in activity, or if I’m just hearing more about it because it has upset some people with powerful platforms from which to complain.
It’s not like we haven’t seen that kind of exaggeration before. There was once a time when many serious people believed that Satan worshipers had infiltrated daycare centers and were abusing children in ritual ceremonies. Even today we have people who believe the U.S. suffers from widespread sex slavery, or that secret cabals of pederasts are being harbored by the Democratic party. Many people believe there is rampant tampering with Halloween candy, and parents have long worried that their children are being corrupted by innovations such as video games, rock music, and novels.
These are examples of moral panics, which usually involve exaggerated or wholly imaginary threats to our way of life. And I’m not sure how to tell if concerns about “cancel culture” are justified, or if they are just a different flavor of moral panic. I’m not saying “cancellations” don’t happen, but I’m not convinced things are getting terribly worse. I’m hearing a lot more about it, but it’s a major issue in the culture war and this is, after all, an election year.
But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
This seems reasonable, with the understanding that just because all sides include intolerant assholes and thugs doesn’t mean that all sides are the same. Values still matter.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.
Here’s the thing: The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, has never been greater than in the last decade or so. From the free speech revolution of the 1960s, to the development of the World Wide Web, to the explosion of low-overhead online publishing and social media, we have more freedom of exchange of information and ideas than at any point in history. I’m not ruling out the possibility that our culture is changing and our freedom of speech is becoming more restricted, but that’s only in comparison to the amazing level of free speech we have achieved. We might be sliding down from the top of the free speech mountain, but we’re still just below the summit.
I believe a big part of the problem is that everyone’s speech is more visible to everyone else. For example, I am nobody on Twitter, and I still had a tweet last week that was seen by 96,000 people. All of us have the opportunity to be heard by more people, which means we can also piss off more people.
So when you hear of some random politician or minor celebrity getting cancelled for saying something offensive, remember that 20 years ago he would have said that offensive thing to a few people at a party, who might have repeated it to a few other people at other parties, and that would be it. But in our modern age, that guy will tweet out his dumbass opinion to his thousands of followers, who will retweet it to thousands more, and so on, until 20 million Twitter users are outraged at him.
Furthermore, each of those millions of people also has access to social media. Twenty years ago, even if word got out that some politician or minor celebrity had said something offensive, the people who got offended would have complained about it to their friends and family, and maybe at social gatherings. But now they can complain on social media, where the offending celebrity can, for the first time in history, see it for themselves. As can thousands of other people, who will retweet it to thousands more, and so on.
It’s now much more difficult to ignore what people are saying about you. You get a lot more pushback, and from a lot more really angry people, when your offensive comment reaches a thousand times more people. That’s doesn’t mean you have less speech. Rather, it’s the natural consequence of you and everybody else having more speech.
While we have come to expect this on the radical right,
Some critics of the letter have been complaining about this clause, because “cancel culture” and “political correctness” are left-wing phenomena, coming from academia and the press. But the right has its own political correctness. It just takes different forms. If you don’t believe me, ask some people on the right how they feel about flag burning, or disrespecting members of the military.
There’s also the post-9/11 backlash against people who objected to the existence and execution of the war on terror. And we have police officers getting fired for online comments that do not support the department, and the accusation that politicians who support Black Lives Matter, or fail to completely defend the police, are therefore police-haters who support Antifa. And let’s not forget all the peaceful protesters over the past few weeks who have been assaulted by police with little provocation or under thin pretexts. And the right’s never-ending attacks on “the media.” And whatever authoritarian bullshit this is.
We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters.
Finally, a clear statement of values, and one I support 100%. It’s why I got into reading (and writing) blogs.
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.
This is such a scattershot list of grievances that I can’t some up with a single coherent evaluation. The devil is in the details, particularly in the details of the roles that these people play at the institutions that are punishing them. Academic institutions should thrive on a diversity of ideas and opinions. Their leaders should expect researchers, professors, and students to ask provocative questions and arrive at unpleasant answers. This will inevitably lead to difficult confrontations, especially since there always seem to be a few highly eccentric academics who go completely off the rails and embarrass the institution. But it’s the price you pay when you support academic freedom. Institutions that promise freedom and fail to deliver are run by cowards.
A similar argument applies to journalism and other forums for expressing opinions. A broad acceptance of different viewpoints will serve them well, and their leaders have an obligation to support their contributors. And yet publications surely have a right to establish an editorial viewpoint. OANN has a right to kick out commentators who don’t support President Trump, Jacobin has a right to kick out those who don’t support socialism, Reason has can kick out non-libertarians, and Everyday Feminism can kick out people who don’t support…whatever brand of crazy they sell there.
The point is, every business and institution has some right to demand certain standards from the people they pay to represent them. If a spokesperson or executive makes the company look bad, the company has a right to do something about that. Corporations, charities, and churches have images to preserve and values to uphold, and it’s legitimate for them to terminate employees who obstruct their goals.
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.
Like I said…maybe.
Speaking for myself, there are definitely some topics I’ve declined to blog about out of concern for my employment. When I started this blog, I was an independent software consultant, and I quickly developed a devil-may-care attitude about reactions to my writing. That changed a few years ago, however, when I went back to regular full-time work. I became more conscious of the fact that my words could reflect on my employer. At that time, my employer was Thomson-Reuters, which includes the Reuters news agency, and that led me to believe (perhaps correctly) that the company would tend to have some respect for my freedom of speech. (The employee handbook also suggest this.) In any case, my blog had been waning in influence for years, and the issue never arose.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.
Within the limits of my earlier remarks about organizations having a right to control the message they send, I certainly agree that a “stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.” And the best response to a bad idea is a good one.
We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.
This is the only call for action in the letter. And for the record, I agree with the principles.
Nevertheless, after all the hype, I find myself disappointed. I guess my main impression is that for all the attention this letter has attracted — and for all the prominent writers who signed on — it doesn’t actually have much to say. Basically, it boils down to a bunch of assertions about the existence of “cancel culture,” ending with a vague request for “less of this, please.”
I’m not saying I could do any better, and I imagine that’s what you get when what you need a statement that appeals to a broad range of signatories. Still, for all the fuss, I expected something more profound.