We were delighted to see that a bunch of intellectual heavyweights of the left are saying something that really needs to be said about the poisonous cancel culture, a threat to free speech and iconoclasm itself.
“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” carried in the current Harper’s magazine, is signed by 150 members in good standing of the left. It takes a stand for the norms of public discourse and against the vicious cancel culture.
The name that jumps out is that of Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling, who has been under attack for saying heretical things about the transgender movement. The signers recognize that free speech is imperiled. They begin:
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. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.
The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. 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.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. 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.
This is a very important statement. You’ll recognize many of the signers: Bari Weiss of the New York Times, novelist Louis Begley, Martin Amis, former “Book World” editor Marie Arana, Margaret Atwood, John McWhorter, Olivia Nuzzi, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Christakis, Laura Kipnis, Katha Pollit, Caitlin Flanagan, and others. You can see the entire list here.
The cancel culture threatens civilized discourse–actually it doesn’t just threaten civilized discourse; it threatens discourse period–and we are glad to see this response from our friends on the left.
Uh-oh: Some lefty biggies now having second thoughts about signing the letter.