Last week Harper’s Magazine posted an open letter to their website titled, “ A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” It was signed by over a hundred artists, pundits, writers, thinkers, journalists, and analysts from all sides of the spectrum with the goal of speaking, “ out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides. “ It made for some strange bedfellows as well joining the signatures of Noam Chomsky and Zephyr Teachout with the likes of J.K. Rowling, Bari Weiss, David Brooks, and Matthew Yglesias.
To exactly no one’s surprise, the internet and more specifically Twitter went crazy. The letter’s main thrust was that it’s too easy to “cancel” someone in today’s current climate, that writers and thinkers shouldn’t have to fear for their jobs should they express a frowned upon view, and that the way to combat bad speech is with good speech.
The letter was signed by many prominent thinkers who most would argue have had little trouble finding a robust platform and a receptive audience with which to parlay their thoughts and opinions. So while the censorship argument has some merit, the execution of it via this letter was flawed, cementing its place as just the latest in a long line of flareups over the limits of free speech and the depth of accountability. Upon its publication, the vibe surrounding the letter instantly turned from arguing that people should be allowed to make mistakes and stumble from time to time in their words to the idea that putting forth any valid criticism of someone is tantamount to a mob trying to stifle free speech.
Ridiculous and worthy of an eye roll to be sure, but in all fairness, is the line between what we have collectively now called “canceling” someone and just offering up honest critique a bit murky and unformed?
Is determining what is too heavy a pile on compared to what is simply disagreeing with someone, no matter how sharp, worthy of debate?
Yes, of course.
That being said, this idea that censorship is on the rise and that free speech is being stifled is an odd argument to make. With the advent of Twitter and Facebook, what’s painfully obvious to everyone is not that free speech is being stifled but that free speech has grown exponentially in a way that was never thought possible. Voices aren’t being removed or ostracized. Quite the contrary, more people have a voice in the public conversation than ever before. So in the light of this letter, the subtext quickly turns from whether or not the pile on is appropriate to who should be allowed to speak freely and who shouldn’t?
If you reread the letter again, it says, “ 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 claim is that this moral outrage they feel is in service of protecting those who lack power, but under examination that doesn’t quite hold up.
Those who lack power generally aren’t heard to begin with. They lack a platform, are without a robust audience, and thus have little influence or money to start. They aren’t tenured professors or respected journalists or famous authors or profound thought leaders. They are just regular people. More to the point, those who lack power aren’t the one’s being cancelled because there’s no need.
Also, there’s never been much appetite to worry about certain powerless people and their terrible opinions. We already cancel them anyway without anyone decrying otherwise. We all ostracize racists, bigots, incels, extremists, and every other vile belief-holding goblin that appears on our timelines or in real life all the time.
Everyone’s okay with it, but as soon as a racist goblin gains a platform, somehow this notion has cropped up that we must be forced to listen to it spout its nonsense. That’s a problem, and one that should be thoroughly rejected. To be frank, some opinions are better and more worthy of debate than others, and while there’s no way to prevent speech, there is certainly no reason to insulate people from the consequences of their speech. We have never in our history afforded that protection to the every day person. I am baffled that these people in power think the standard should be any different for them.
We all know that after everyone forgets the letter, all these signers will still be employed in their cushy jobs. That’s all but certain. So you have to wonder is this creeping cloud of censorship that this group is so worried about not as prominent as they think or is it being used as a scapegoat in lieu of them being held accountable?
Either way, it all just comes off as a bad joke.