Tag Archives: Harpers letter

It Depends And It’s Complicated

Every so often, intellectual luminaries initiate what the rest of us might call a “pissing match.”

One such match was triggered by a letter published in Harpers, warning that the spread of “censoriousness” is leading to “an intolerance of opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”. Some of my favorite authors–and some not-so-favorite– are signatories (and no, I’m not identifying either category.)

The letter approves of the “powerful protests for racial and social justice” that it says are leading to “overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society”, but it goes on to disapprove–strongly–of what it calls “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” leading to the delivery of “hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms”, and it charges that this disproportionate response tends “to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”.

As an aside, I’m not so certain those norms ever existed outside certain rarified circles. I sure haven’t seen much evidence of a genteel “toleration of differences”– and such courtesies certainly haven’t characterized social media.

I find myself agreeing with a remark attributed to US senator Brian Schatz (D. Hawaii), that “lots of brainpower and passion is being devoted to a problem that takes a really long time to describe, and is impossible to solve, and meanwhile we have mass preventable death”.

A Guardian article reported the reactions of some of that paper’s columnists, at least two of whom pointed out that the letter was a bit fuzzy in its definition of “cancel culture.” Zoe Williams, for example, wrote

This reminds me a lot of the arguments we used to have about religious tolerance in the 90s. Toleration was a good and necessary thing; but what if it meant you had to tolerate people who themselves wouldn’t tolerate you?

One of the Guardian commenters was Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, who had signed the original letter. He explained that he’d signed on, not because he is a free speech absolutist–a status he disclaims–but because he believes that,

If it is true that hierarchies are in part maintained – not just undone – by speech, and that speech can harm and not just help, it doesn’t follow that more free speech for more people isn’t generally a good cause. It is.

A few people sent me the original letter, and asked my opinion. With the caveat that I am no more equipped to weigh in than anyone else, here are my reactions:

Free speech has always been contested. It has also always been misunderstood: we have the right to “speak our piece” without interference by government. We have never had–and never will have–the right to speak our piece without repercussions, without hearing from people who disagree with what we have said.

Do extreme negative responses intimidate people, and deter others from speaking out–suppressing, rather than encouraging, productive debate? Yes. Isn’t that regrettable? Usually–although not always.

Is the extreme sort of blowback that the letter excoriates often unfair, and even unhelpful to the cause of those engaging in the disproportionate reaction? Yes–often.

Have the Internet and social media amplified both hateful speech and over-the-top censorious responses to it? Yes. Does that reality make civil, productive discussion and debate more difficult? You betcha.

None of this, however, qualifies as “breaking news.”

A number of people critical of the letter point to signatories who–they say–are guilty of the very behavior they criticize. That doesn’t make the criticism wrong, of course, but it does point to the fact that whether a reaction is proportionate to the offense is very much a subjective determination.

I tell my students at the beginning of each semester that my goal is for them to leave my class using two phrases far more frequently than they did previously: It depends and it’s more complicated than that.

Meanwhile, Senator Schatz has a point.