After days of debate involving every conceivable perspective on the open letter—on social media, on blogs, on podcasts, in other publications, and in private conversations—I have concluded that the letter’s concern that “the free exchange of information and ideas . . . is daily becoming more constricted” is unfounded and frankly confusing.
Clearly there is robust debate on a variety of subjects, including many that not long ago were considered to be outside the boundaries of public discourse. “The free exchange of information and ideas” is perhaps stronger and more widely accessible today than ever before.
Oddly, the letter ignores more distinct threats to free speech: libel lawsuits that block legitimate criticism, abuse of copyright laws to hamper commentary and culture, and legal threats that intimidate speakers into silence.
Instead, the letter alludes to examples of publications exercising their editorial discretion, and speakers facing social consequences driven by vigorous counter-speech, while omitting the details. If any of these examples deserves serious debate and consideration, the letter fails to foster or even enable it, and certainly does not engage in it.
Redwood City, Calif.
“We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters,” the letter claims, but in practice many of its signatories don’t. All societies designate some speech as socially unacceptable and impose social penalties to enforce this. Overt racial slurs, for example, used to be acceptable “caustic counter-speech” in the United States; now they’re not, and few would say we’re worse off for it.
Defending free speech in the abstract has limited value, because free speech isn’t really under attack. Activists are arguing that speech they’ve identified as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or otherwise bigoted should join overt racial slurs and Holocaust denial on the socially unacceptable side of the line. Countering that effort when it becomes excessive requires a persuasive argument that what the activists consider bad speech isn’t actually bad, or, at least, isn’t bad enough to be declared socially unacceptable. But litigating the merits of each case is more difficult than simply arguing that free speech is good.
The hard part, in other words, isn’t telling other people to be more open to ideas they don’t like. It’s drawing the lines around socially acceptable expressions and determining appropriate responses to transgressions.
“We welcome responses,” Harper’s Magazine noted in its online introduction to the letter, but its writers do not seem to. They “raise [their] voices”; they “refuse”; they tell us what “must not be allowed” to happen or what is “needed,” but something they do not do is argue for the value of open debate.
Is it even possible to argue for free speech? Yes. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill is careful to acknowledge the structural source of pressures on speech: the tyranny of the majority is not a product of evil illiberal forces, but a danger endemic to political freedom. Mill’s arguments stem from an optimistic conception of human reason. Instead of “taking a stand” against opponents of free speech, Mill treats them as reasonable, intelligent interlocutors.
Because the “stifling atmosphere” to which the letter refers is palpable in every sentence of it, it is worth reminding ourselves that a freer defense of free speech is possible.
One of the most frustrating reactions to the letter has been the claim, by many on the left, that the phrase “cancel culture” (which doesn’t appear in the letter, incidentally) is vague or meaningless. This is often accompanied by an insistence that the discussion stems from the rich and powerful trying to shield themselves from criticism.
I would define cancel culture as a cluster of interrelated trends: mutual surveillance, hair-trigger denunciations, and public shaming. These trends are exacerbated by the feedback loops built into corporate-controlled social-media platforms, which encourage users to harvest “likes” by initiating such condemnations. While by no means confined to the left, this climate has had a particularly toxic impact on its discourse, presenting a problem for anyone who, as I do, wants to make our politics appealing to potential converts.
Leftists who insult the intelligence of otherwise persuadable people by insisting that cancel culture doesn’t exist, when its effects are everywhere apparent, will convince no one outside of our bubble. Far better to offer real solutions to the problem, such as strengthening labor unions and ending at-will employment.
I want to respond to those who have been dismayed by my signature on the letter, which I did not write but agreed to endorse because it read to me like a vague but innocuous statement in support of something I believe in: the need for vigorous, respectful democratic discourse. Such discourse is crucial to my work as a trans activist, which focuses on fostering open discussions about gender to help communities and individuals grow toward mutual understanding.
I didn’t know who else would sign. I never imagined that it would get much attention in the midst of a pandemic, economic and climate crises, and continuing attacks against people of color. I certainly didn’t expect the message to be hijacked by those who oppose trans rights, democratic discourse, and the crucial work of creating racial and economic justice in this country. Apparently, my expectations were wrong.
My signature does not mean that I endorse the views or work of other signatories. It means I support democratic discourse. I support engaging in dialogue and looking for common ground with people I disagree with—even deeply. I refuse to reduce others to binary categories, to act as though people are good or bad, right or wrong. As a trans person and as a Jew, I know the violence that grows out of this sort of thinking. I also reject the idea of intellectual, political, and moral contagion—the view that, for example, those who signed the letter should be treated as supporting everything (or anything) other signatories, such as J. K. Rowling, have said or done.
I apologize to those who feel let down by my signing, and am grateful to all who have respectfully expressed agreement and disagreement. That’s the way democratic dialogue is supposed to work, and I have learned from you.
“I am old enough to disdain cancel culture, though not for the reasons the letter gives. My disdain comes from the belief that it doesn’t exist—at least not as anything new, anything more than yet another term used as a blanket criticism of people, often young but not always, deploying new forms of communication (in this case, social media) to call out those they believe are espousing or enabling racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, sexual harassment and capitalistic exploitation.”
—Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times, July 9
“There’s something darkly comical about the fretfulness of these elite petitioners. It’s telling that the censoriousness they identify as a national plague isn’t the racism that keeps Black journalists from reporting on political issues, or the transphobia that threatens their colleagues’ lives. The letter denounces ‘the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society,’ strategically blurring the line between these two forces. . . . Yet the suddenly unemployed people the Harper’s statement references clearly lost their jobs not because of a pandemic or government pressure, but for actions criticized as potentially harming marginalized groups.”
—Hannah Giorgis, The Atlantic, July 13
“Given Trump’s attack on dissent, it’s urgent for the left to reclaim the language of free speech and not leave this discourse to reactionary cranks. With free speech advocates like Bari Weiss, Cary Nelson, and Yascha Mounk, the forces of censorship will always enjoy a good night’s sleep. Yet to simply say that Weiss and company are hypocrites is only half the story. Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite when he penned ‘all men are created equal.’ Jefferson’s slave-owning doesn’t discredit the principles he articulated. Rather, the principles give us language with which to criticize Jefferson. In the same way, the letter I signed provides standards by which hypocrites can be held accountable.”
—Jeet Heer, The Nation, July 10
“A large number of the signatories are in positions of influence and prestige, and [one] criticism thrown at them is that people have therefore found it virtually impossible to cancel them (though not for lack of trying). So, why the whining? Despite this explicit statement in the letter—‘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’—its detractors completely missed the point. The signatories are doing this on behalf of those of us who aren’t immune from cancellation.”
—Angel Eduardo, Areo, July 18
“Debates over speech’s boundaries are the kinds of difficult conversations that every liberal society (maybe even every society) grapples with all the time. Canada criminalizes hate speech, Germany bans Holocaust denial, and the United States permits both—yet no one seriously believes that America is a free society while the other two have somehow collapsed into illiberalism. The cancel culture conversation is the same debate around free speech’s limits that we’ve been having over offensive speech for decades, playing out in newsrooms and faculty lounges rather than legislatures.”
—Zack Beauchamp, Vox, July 22
“If people fear for their livelihoods for relatively minor ideological transgressions, it may not violate the Constitution—the workplace is not the state—but it does create a climate of self-censorship and grudging conformity. . . . One reason many on the right want to be seen as free speech defenders is that they understand that the power to break taboos can be even more potent than the power to create them. Even sympathetic people will come to resent a left that refuses to make distinctions between deliberate slurs, awkward mistakes and legitimate disagreements. Cowing people is not the same as converting them.”
—Michelle Goldberg, New York Times, July 19