Culture

'Stifling Atmosphere' of Cancel Culture Will Harm 'the Most Vital Causes of Our Time,' Liberals Warn

No Nazis in Berkeley, Stand Against Hate rally. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

On Tuesday, Harper’s released a powerful open letter denouncing cancel culture and celebrating open debate. Even far-left anti-capitalist Noam Chomsky signed the letter.

“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter warns. “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 signatories lament that “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.”

“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal,” the letter warns.

This section references many news stories, such as the professor facing investigation for reading from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, a professional soccer player who was fired for his wife’s tweet, and former New York Times opinion editor James Bennet, who resigned amid backlash for publishing Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Mo.) op-ed calling for law and order in the George Floyd riots.

Thanks to these witch hunts, the signatories argue, “We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”

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While the letter condemns cancel culture, it does not support President Donald Trump or oppose the growing calls for “social justice” and “inclusion” following the horrific police killing of George Floyd.

“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” the letter begins. “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,” the signatories argue. “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 letter warns that “this stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”

The pro-free speech academics, journalists, and thinkers argue that “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 way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

“We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us,” they conclude.

The list of signatories includes many left-leaning writers, academics, and activists. The list includes New York Times columnist David Brooks, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Malcolm Gladwell, Matt Yglesias, Damon Linker, Fareed Zakaria, and more. Other signatories include Jonathan Haidt, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, feminist author Gloria Steinem, and former ACLU President Nadine Strossen.

Some of the signatories, such as Yale University’s Nicholas Christakis and Stephen Pinker, have been victims of cancel culture themselves. British Indian novelist Salman Rushdie faced an international fatwa calling for his assassination from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, for his novel The Satanic VersesHarry Potter author J.K. Rowling has faced cancel culture outrage over her remarks warning against the excesses of the transgender movement.

This letter represents an important check on the cancel culture movement, but it is unlikely to stop activists from seeking to silence anyone who crosses far-left orthodoxy. The letter may encourage various leaders — CEOs, university presidents, and others — to reconsider immediately caving to the outrage mob, however. When left-leaning writers and academics condemn cancel culture, they may embolden left-leaning societal leaders to rethink their shameful acquiescence to the outrage mob.

That is, assuming these writers and academics don’t find themselves “canceled.”

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.

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