More than 150 writers, journalists, academics and artists — including J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky and Margaret Atwood — signed an open letter published Tuesday arguing that stifled free speech is creating an “intolerant climate” within society.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” states the missive, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” “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.”
The letter — which boasts signatories including cultural icons such as jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, choreographer Bill T. Jones and feminist Gloria Steinem and public figures like historian Nell Irvin Painter and author Malcolm Gladwell — drew mixed reactions on social media, igniting a heated online debate over free speech and “cancel culture.”
Detractors pointed out that many of those who signed the letter, as one person put it, have “bigger platforms and more resources than most other humans” and are not at risk of being silenced. Others called attention to the letter’s more controversial supporters, like Rowling, who has recently faced public condemnation for comments widely deemed to be anti-transgender.
“I would take that Harper’s letter seriously were it not for the fact that at least some of those signatories have quite recently engaged in the same toxic behavior they supposedly stand against in the letter,” a critic tweeted.
Amid the outcry, at least two of the letter’s signers publicly distanced themselves from it Tuesday.
“I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming,” tweeted author Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. Boylan added: “The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.— Jennifer Finney Boylan 🐕 (@JennyBoylan) July 7, 2020
The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.
Historian Kerri Greenidge went a step further, tweeting: “I do not endorse this @Harpers letter. I am in contact with Harper’s about a retraction.” A spokeswoman for Harper’s told the New York Times that the magazine fact-checked the signatures and that Greenidge had signed off. But the spokeswoman said Harper’s is “respectfully removing her name.”
Meanwhile, other critics of the letter said they were asked to support it and declined.
“Okay, I did not sign THE LETTER when I was asked 9 days ago because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach — and I said as much,” tweeted Richard Kim, HuffPost’s enterprise director.
But what I don't get are the smaller group of people who obviously painstakingly labored over those words and released them with great seriousness and pride and high fives. That hubris is truly what makes this a deliciously funny moment— Richard Kim (@RichardKimNYC) July 7, 2020
The process of producing the letter began about a month ago, writer Thomas Chatterton Williams told The Washington Post. Williams, a columnist for Harper’s who helped spearhead the effort, said about 20 people contributed language to the letter before it was sent out for signatures.
“We wanted the document to reflect the reality that many people who are not old white men share these concerns,” said Williams, who is black. He added that support for the letter was gathered organically.
“It wasn’t meant as a prize or any definitive list of people who believe these things,” he said. “But it was trying to show a diverse range of voices, of experiences, of ideologies, of ages and all that, all being unified in commitment to a set of principles that I think are pretty uncontroversial.”
Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor and one of the letter’s signatories, told The Post in an email that Williams had sent him the text and asked for his endorsement. Ford, who is also black, said he signed the letter because he “thought it was important and necessary.”
“I’ve witnessed too many cases of ferocious takedowns for defensible if ideologically unorthodox views or relatively minor breaches of political etiquette,” he said. “This is more true of Trumpian conservatives than anyone, but it is also true of some progressives.”
The letter makes a point to denounce President Trump as “a real threat to democracy,” describing him as a “powerful ally” to the “forces of illiberalism” that “are gaining strength throughout the world.”
“But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion — which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting,” the letter says.
It goes on to criticize the increasing number of “calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought” and lists several vague examples of people losing positions or being subjected to intense backlash as a result of “cancel culture.”
“This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time,” the letter reads. “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 letter concludes with a demand from writers for “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”
“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” it says.
The text began circulating widely online Tuesday after it was promoted by Harper’s and a number of its signatories, who tweeted that they were proud to back the letter’s views.
Williams told The Post that he has since gotten “enormous positive feedback” and praised the public figures who have voiced their support for the letter.
“The fact that people with platforms and with some reasonable fame and job security stepped forward does not mean that they’re doing it for themselves alone,” he said. “A lot of people did something that I think was kind of an act of generosity on behalf of people who are less established.”
On Twitter, Williams also touted the diverse group of people who had signed the letter, writing, “This is not a list of ‘the same old white males.’ ”
I can't emphasize enough the range of viewpoints attached to this letter, but neither can i over-emphasize the climate of fear that led many people you know and admire to tell us in confidence that they agreed but were afraid to sign. This is why such a statement is necessary. pic.twitter.com/Dc4d5p8rMV— Thomas Chatterton Williams 🌍 🎧 (@thomaschattwill) July 7, 2020
But it was the list of names that seemed to fuel much of the ire directed at the letter.
“This is the first time in American history that people apart from the moneyed New York and Washington elite have had the chance to get their voices heard, and the Harper’s signatories are freaking out over the fact that people are being mean to them on Twitter,” one person tweeted. “So embarrassing.”
That Harper's letter, to me, is in large part from people who are unhappy that they're not leading the current conversation, addressed to the many other people they believe are also unhappy that they're not leading it.— Linda Holmes Thinks You're Doing Great (@lindaholmes) July 7, 2020
Several people also noted that some of the letter’s backers, as one critic wrote, “have themselves been involved in attempts to silence people they disagree with. And none of them is exactly lacking ways to have their voices be heard.”
“That Harper’s letter never should’ve been written,” tweeted New York magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz. “It makes everybody involved seem oblivious to the harm some of the signatories have caused.”
To the signatories I respect, I'm sure a productive conversation can be had in good faith, but you should probably look up some of the names next to you on this thing and school them first.— Charlotte Clymer 🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) July 7, 2020
Those who signed the letter were quick to push back against the criticism.
“Actually, it’s the DUTY of people with large platforms to use their reach to stand up to the nonsense and talk honestly about what’s going on,” tweeted author Meghan Daum.
Seeing predictable pushback to this along the lines of "lol all these people with large platforms complaining abt censorship boo hoo."— Meghan Daum (@meghan_daum) July 7, 2020
Actually, it's the DUTY of people with large platforms to use their reach to stand up to the nonsense and talk honestly about what's going on. https://t.co/QWgIWWTVzy
Williams defended the signatories on Twitter, writing, “I think many people misunderstand the purpose of an open letter.” He noted that signers of such a document are “endorsing the ideas articulated in that letter — not every idea held by every co-signatory at every stage of life.”
Ford, the Stanford law professor, echoed Williams’s comments in his email to The Post.
“I was not told who else had signed, but I’m not sure why that should matter,” he said. “I signed the letter; I did not sign a pact to endorse or defend everything everyone else who signed has said, written or done, nor would I imagine the other signatories have implicitly endorsed everything I’ve written.
“We agree on what the letter says but no doubt disagree about lots of other things,” he added.