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[Editor’s Desk]

The Letter and Its Discontents

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On July 7, we published on our website an open letter signed by more than one hundred and fifty prominent writers, artists, and scholars. “The free exchange of information and ideas,” the letter warned, “is daily becoming more constricted.” This constriction, it argued, was happening across the American political spectrum, but the left’s version of it presupposed a “false choice between justice and freedom.” Stifling speech will not achieve social progress, the letter insisted. Indeed, such an atmosphere “will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”

I’d been sent the letter a week earlier by the Harper’s Magazine contributor Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was among a group responsible for writing it and gathering signatures. I agreed to put it online and to print it in our Letters section this month, along with a selection of responses.

Within a few days, more than two million people had viewed the letter. It made the front page of the New York Times, was translated into half a dozen other languages, and has since been the subject of seemingly endless conversation. Many media outlets published thoughtful responses, some of which were quite negative. Writers took issue with the letter’s timing, its tone, its premise. Some argued that the letter ignored the workings of structural power in the United States—that it failed to acknowledge the dynamics that withhold even the opportunity to participate in the project of free speech from many communities, and that it failed to recognize the institutional clout of the signatories themselves. How could such well-insulated figures complain about being silenced?

These critiques prompted several signatories to write their own responses, explaining what the letter meant to them, what had motivated them to sign it, and how they felt about the resulting tempest. Nowhere in the letter do the signatories complain that they personally have felt silenced, and many clarified that they meant to use the privilege of their relative security to speak out on behalf of others in more precarious situations. Indeed, in the days after we published the letter, I received an overwhelming number of messages from young freelance journalists, graduate students, and adjunct professors—the kinds of people who are not insulated by tenure or staff positions—expressing relief that the letter had spoken on their behalf.

In a liberal society, disagreement is not only to be expected but welcomed. Just as we face what Karl Popper called the “paradox of tolerance”—the need to be intolerant of certain intolerant ideas in order to be maximally tolerant—we also face what might be called a paradox of free expression. To engage in a good-faith argument about the relative value of free expression is to accept that reasoned debate—which depends on free expression—is the proper means of adjudicating such questions. In that sense, even the letter’s loudest critics were in a kind of agreement with it.

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October 2020