Pushback from Sean Carroll and others against the Harper’s letter promoting open discourse

UPDATE: In a New York Times article, Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Haper’s writer who helped organize the letter, got specific with some of the incidents that inspired its creation:

He said there wasn’t one particular incident that provoked the letter. But he did cite several recent ones, including the resignation of more than half the board of the National Book Critics Circle over its statement supporting Black Lives Matter, a similar blowup at the Poetry Foundation, and the case of David Shor, a data analyst at a consulting firm who was fired after he tweeted about academic research linking looting and vandalism by protesters to Richard Nixon’s 1968 electoral victory.

Is that good enough to answer those who say that the letter lacked specificity? I could add lots more!


Yesterday I reported on a letter, signed by many luminaries, about the need for open debate and the dangers of repressive “cancel culture,” whether from the Right or Left. The letter was published simultaneously in Harper’s, Le Monde, Die Zeit, La Repubblica, and El País.  Before we look at some pushback, please reread the original short letter:

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. 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. 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.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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.

Note that this isn’t particularly controversial, at least to me. It seems incontestable that social-media mobs and other forms of demonization and bullying are indeed narrowing the range of acceptable speech, with strict penalties if you go against acceptable thought (on the Left, that would be “woke” thought, including critical theory).  (See the last Tweet at bottom.) This is in fact a classic defense of free speech, arguing that “justice and freedom cannot exist without each other.”

The letter indicts all parts of the political spectrum, though I think it was meant mainly as a message to the Left: “Don’t be like the Right.” Note as well that although it cites the kinds of censorious behavior that it decries, it doesn’t give specific examples. I think that’s fine, for examples would detract from the general point, and can be found quite easily. As I wrote yesterday:

I bet you could name an example of every action mentioned here (e.g., editors being fired = James Bennet; journalist barred from writing on certain topics = Andrew Sullivan, professor fired for quoting literature in class = Philip Adamo, and so on).

But, as you might expect, the letter brought pushback, some of which came not from its message, but from the identities of the signers. I was saddened, though, to see pushback against the message from physicist Sean Carroll, a man I’ve always admired (and admire still); he’s our Official Website Physicist.®  Here are screenshots of his 10-tweet thread, which you can find here.

Let me respond briefly to these tweets, as I think Sean’s argument—that the Harper’s letter was not only useless, but injurious—is misguided. I’ll take the tweets in their numbered order.

1.) How, exactly, is a letter calling for open discourse, and the withholding of a mob mentality towards those transgressing “accepted” wisdom, “anti-productive”? (The word is “counterproductive”, I think.) Sean’s explanation follows.

2.) Sean says that “some of the signatories have been involved in attempts to silence people they disagree with.” Curiously, though he faults the article for not giving specific examples, Sean declines to name names here, so I have no idea what or whom he’s talking about.  And even if a few have done this, which would be hypocritical, that doesn’t affect the message of the letter. Why not just take it as it is without minutely examining every signatory? After all, who has an unblemished record?

As for “none of them is exactly lacking ways to have their voices be heard,” why is that relevant? They wanted their voices to be heard on an issue that isn’t often discussed in the mainstream liberal press, and thus the letter was published in major media in five countries. What they’re doing is letting their voices be heard at a time critical for describing the tsunami of indictments for Thoughtcrime, Writecrime, and Newspeak.

3.) Sean claims that the “letter declines to engage with substance, instead straw-manning the incidents they object to. We are told, for example, that “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class.”

There’s no strawmanning here; I can name one or more examples of every behavior cited in the Harper’s piece. It would be counterproductive to divert attention from the article’s message by going into detail about each claim. I could do that for you, and I’ve given several examples, but rest assured that there is no “strawmanning,” which I take to mean a claim by Carrol that the authors are exaggerating these incidents. They aren’t. And, of course, Carroll himself fails to give examples of the “censorious” people who, he says, signed the article.

4.) In the “4/n” tweet, Sean argues that nobody objects to “quoting literature” in a classroom in general, and he’s right. But that isn’t the point of the article. The point was that quoting literature in a classroom that makes people uncomfortable can lead to teachers being fired or disciplined, and that’s happened many times. If you follow my site and others, you’ll easily find such cases. Again, going into detail—giving five or six instances of each claim—would detract from the article’s message.

5.) Same as above: Sean’s beef is that details about the controversies are lacking (are “erased”, to use the argot of the Woke). If the details support the claims, which they do, this doesn’t concern me. The main argument is clear, and is far from a “simple morality play.”

6.) Sean claims that there is no “culture war here”, just the need for principled debate. But yes, there is a kind of culture war, with the Authoritarian Left trying to silence those who violate the dicta of Critical Theory by threatening them with career damage, being called a “racist,” and so on. I am not aware of many people on the Center-Left, like me, trying to silence anybody. In fact, this site is about debate. Note that although Sean says “phrases like ‘cancel culture’ serve to obscure more than clarify,” the Harper’s article doesn’t even use that phrase.

7-10.) This is where I disagree most strongly with Sean. His argument is more or less “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” That is, those who get hurt or “unfairly fired from their job” in the current climate of ideological purity, well, they’re just collateral damage in a tactic that he sees as “a bad strategy in an honorable fight.” But the point is that we all agree that the “fight”, i.e., the battle for equality, inclusion, equity, and against Trumpism, is an honorable fight. The point is that you don’t have to fight dirty.

I disagree that hurting people’s livelihood and reputations is “something we have to accept as part of progress.” No, we do not! Yes, we should push back against that, but by then the damage is done. The point is not to discuss the Cancel Culture, but to change it—to dissolve a culture that prizes bullying and censorship over open but respectful disagreement.  Frankly, I do not see the “weasel words” and “sweeping generalizations” in the Harper’s letter that, claims Sean, “undercut the struggle for equality in the name of free discourse.” Is he saying here that we should accept restrictions on discourse because they hinder the achievement of equality? I’m not sure. But I’m pretty sure that the Harper’s article will not undermine the fight for moral justice.

In truth, I’m not sure what Sean is trying to do with this series of tweets except to say that he’s opposed to the article.


I just noticed that on his blog, P. Z. Myers has also dismissed the Harper’s letter as “whiny”. He also beefs about a lack of detailed description of the incidents—incidents that anybody can find in a moment of Googling:

Shorter Harper’s letter: We elites deplore the fact that people use the internet to criticize us. It’s clear that whoever wrote this had some specific incidents in mind, but chose to remove any details in that second paragraph to prevent anyone from thinking, “wait, that was a fair response to writing stupid ideas.” And the “threat of reprisal” they are concerned about is that people might use the privilege of free speech to disagree with them. The “ideological conformity” they’re concerned about is the growing realization that modern conservatism has poisoned our civilization, is a rotten idea, and maybe, just maybe, rotten ideas ought not to dominate our government.

It all boils down to yet another paean to Free Speech being used to silence anyone who might criticize the status quo. How dare you recoil in disgust at my thinly-veiled call for eugenics, or my distortion of biology to decree that there are only two sexes, or my concern that uppity Blacks should calm down and wait for justice to gently lap against your toes? We have bills to pay, and if you make our conformity to the conservative establishment less bankable, we might have to struggle to pay off the house in the Hamptons!

. . . they say nothing about what’s to be done to end “this stifling atmosphere.” Maybe because what they actually want is to shut everyone else up.

There’s more, but it makes me ill. Nobody is calling for people to shut up or not engage in debate here. As is palpably clear, the letter is simply decrying the tendency of social-justice mobs (and others on the Right), to threaten or try to ruin people’s careers for the most trivial of “sins.” One example is the letter to the Linguistics Society of America trying to strip Pinker of his LSA honors because of a few tweets and one word in a book (mild-mannered). Want more: what about the cancellation of Woody Allen’s memoirs by Hachette? Or the cancellation of young-adult fiction that isn’t sufficiently woke? Or the demonization of J. K. Rowling (who signed the article) for her views on trans women? I could go on, but I’m getting weary of Myers’s well known tendency to go after anyone who’s more famous than he, accusing them, as he does here, of racism, conservatism, and elitism.


The Washington Post has a longish article describing reaction, both pro and con, to the Harper’s letter. You can read that for yourself.


An article at The American Conservative applauds the letter as a useful prod on the Right by the Left. (Am I demonized for citing that site? If so, that just shows the point of the Harper’s article!) The AC article contains several interesting tweets. I’ll show just a couple:

From a Vox writer criticizing one of her colleagues who signed the article. Dog whistles in there!

A retraction from a signer:

And a tweet (which I can’t find on the Twitter feed) from Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer for the New York Times, a columnist at Harpers, and also one of the letter’s organizers.

The fact that many people agreed with the letter but refused to sign it emphasizes more than anything else the NEED for such a letter.

Williams’s Twitter feed has many good tweets from those who signed the letter or supported it. Have a look.

I end with a new tweet from Pinker

h/t: Chris, cesar


  1. Richard Sanderson🤴
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    I am not surprised at Sean Carroll’s position. He’s closer to the PZ Myers wing of regressive thinking, than the freethought wing.

    I said on this blog about a year ago about how “woke” and “SJW” (i.e. anti-liberal) Sean was, and another poster didn’t quite believe me.

    Well, perhaps they’ll listen now.

    • dabertini
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:01 am | Permalink


    • Ken Kukec
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      It’ll take more than this single twitter thread to convince me of that. You have some additional examples you’d care to cite?

      • Posted July 10, 2020 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

        The “Particles for Justice” fiasco against a CERN physicist who wrote on possible causes of the gender imbalance in physics. He was one of those who wrote the letter, not just a signatory.


    • darrelle
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Sean Carroll is like PZ Meyers? Really? That’s what you want to roll with? I thought this sort of extreme lack of nuance nearly indistinguishable from dishonesty was supposed to be one of the things that makes the “woke” so bad.

      • A.Le
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

        Sean Carroll is not a bad person, and although I strongly disagree with what he wrote here, I’m not about to cancel him over this. I listen to his podcast every week.

        PZ is another story though.

        • chrism
          Posted July 9, 2020 at 6:17 am | Permalink

          And I’d just managed to go for a month or so without remembering Peezus’ existence! Now I have to calm my blood pressure down again…

    • Jackson
      Posted July 12, 2020 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      I was surprised at Sean Carroll comments so appreciate the extra discussion here. I thought the letter was straightforward and persuasive and will re-read sean Carroll tweets, Jerry’s analysis and commentary here.

  2. Ideomachy
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 9:42 am | Permalink

    Re: 8/n

    It is precisely because the struggle against discrimination has a chance to make real progress that we should challenge its overreach moments. Our quarrel is not with the struggle, but with the unscrupulous parties who are abusing it to push their ideological agendas that have nothing to do with actually struggling against discrimination.

    • Peter N
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

      Very well said.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:19 pm | Permalink


    • just josh
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

      The struggle against discrimination *has* made real progress, in fact massive progress, to the point where it is actually debatable what role it plays in many areas. That’s part of the problem, the principles that actually brought us here, that allowed for the advancement of just causes while protecting the individual who dissents from the crowd, are in danger of being thrown out. Sean is, unfortunately, all too willing to play along with unscrupulous parties, whether out of genuine belief, ignorance or careerism.

      • Oscar
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        Careerism it is. I can’t believe they managed to instill that kind of fear in someone like him.

    • stephen
      Posted July 9, 2020 at 5:00 am | Permalink

      Just so.Thank you very much.

  3. GBJames
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 9:54 am | Permalink


  4. DrBrydon
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the criticism that the letter didn’t cite specific examples is very strong. Clearly, this is an attempt to delineate a strong, middle ground. Citing examples would have only been seen as choosing sides. I also disagree with Carroll that there is a real chance for change at this moment. BLM has no constructive agenda beyond its desire for power, and they are making sure that any other allies who might be interested in reform either get in line or are called out. As long as people like Carroll are willing to accept that ends justify means, the most strident voices and tactics will proliferate. (There’s a great deal more going on here than people being made to feel uncomfortable, and, even if there weren’t, I don’t see him telling the Progressives “to get over it” when it comes to language and statues.)

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. The lack of specific examples criticism seems a strange one but perhaps those less familiar with the shit show on the Left see it as being cagey. I say put a bunch of footnotes at the end then. There are many examples.

      • rickflick
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Carroll’s tweets gave me the distinct impression he hasn’t been following the news lately. I hope that’s the case, since otherwise I’m rather baffled by his position.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

        This is what I was hoping could be brought up. Where the authors post the letters online, it would not bulk it out to a tome if they simply created links in the letter, citing for example the many educators who got into very hot water, even fired, after reading literature to a class that used the N-word. There are numerous examples of just this situation. Even suspension after a professor warns the class in advance — like the woke say you are supposed to and then everything will be fine. No. Apparently not!

  5. Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    If no other, the letter will serve the purpose of exposing people’s adherence to purity policing.

    I always wonder: How is it that these people think they will be the ones to decide what is acceptable speech? One would think Trump’s election alone would cure them of that idea.

    • DrBrydon
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:24 am | Permalink

      This has puzzled me as well. Trump’s election, rather than spurring a we’re-better-than-that attitude, seems to have led to an abandonment of standards. More Trump Derangement Syndrome, I guess.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Here here. Without the response of people like Pinker and Rowling, the direction the Left will take will only put more power in Trump’s hands.

      I think Carroll could see this, but he doesn’t like how this a whole episode has become mired in an ostensible culture war. PZ Meyers, on the other hand, for all his good intentions has no idea that his position helps Trump more than hurts it.

  6. eric grobler
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:13 am | Permalink

    “And none of them is exactly lacking ways to have their voices be heard”

    Interesting that a genius can make such a stupid argument.

    • Ranody Bessinger
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Sean has called himself a genius? I have wver heard him say that. Quite the opposite it seems to me. I have listened to almost all of his podcasts. Your characterization in your statement is rather sad. Maybe this site is justnot the place for me.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think Sean has called himself a genius; my take was that Eric thought he was a genius. But that aside, your whining about “this site not being for you” because you find one disturbing comment clearly means that you should hie your tuchas out of here, for you might get MORE offended at some other time!

      • eric grobler
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

        “Sean has called himself a genius?”
        From my point of view a quantum physicist is a genius.

        “I have listened to almost all of his podcasts.”
        So did I, as proof he once mentioned “The Only Way” by ELP in a podcast which is also a song that meant something to me in my youth.

        “Maybe this site is justnot the place for me.”
        Ranody, I have been a fan of Sean for a long time, let me repeat; it is strange that a genius can make such a stupid statement!

        (I did not put genius in scare quotes!)

  7. Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    To write those tweets, Sean Carroll is either ignorant of the facts about what has been going on with the academic cancel culture, or just doesn’t care. He appears to suggest that because the Harper’s letter does not go into the details about the events it protests, the signatories just made them up.

    • Posted July 9, 2020 at 2:06 am | Permalink

      He has less to fear about it than many in academia I would think. It’s hard, although I don’t put it past someone to try, to put quantum physics in a critical theory dispute.

  8. Historian
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    The letter was signed by an all-star cast of public intellectuals, ranging in ideological propensity from center-right (such as David Brooks and Francis Fukuyama) to people rather far to the left (such as Noam Chomsky and Jeet Heer). The essence of the letter is that a free society requires free speech. Attempts to stifle free speech, whether from the right or the left, is a threat to a free society. These intellectuals are fighting back against those whom I would refer to as suffering from liberal guilt. That is, there exists a group of liberals who feel that if they are at all critical of the actions of the “oppressed,” then they are condoning oppression. These signers are saying, no, anyone or any group is subject to criticism when warranted.

    Related to this, I would like to direct readers to a new website called “Persuasion.” It has been created by one of the signers of the letter, Yascha Mounk, a political scientist. The goal of the site is to “To defend the values of a free society with courage and conviction.” I think this site is worth keeping an eye on.


    • DrBrydon
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:39 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the link, Historian. I wonder if I have time to read Applebaum’s new book before her book chat on the 30th.

    • merilee
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:42 am | Permalink

      I checked out the site. Thanks, Historian. I’m not prepared to fork out the annual fee of $100 at the moment but have enjoyed Mounk’s writing whenever I’ve seen it (possibly in Harper’s??)

      • Jon Gallant
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        Yascha Mounk’s Jewish mother emigrated to Germany from Poland in 1969, during an upsurge of Left anti-semitism guided by the ruling Polish United Workers’ Party. So Dr. Mounk’s family background provided lessons on the outcome of that familiar Left chorus about how to make an omelette, the one that goes “…something we have to accept as part of progress”. Its tune is so catchy that it keeps being sung, century after century.

        • Max Blancke
          Posted July 8, 2020 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

          My wife’s dad got swept up in the cultural revolution in China. He had some fairly strong opinions about the process of leftist revolution as well.

          As hard as it is for those of us raised here in relative comfort to watch this unfold, it has to be a living nightmare for those people who have already lived through the process, and now see clear signs that their grandchildren are going to experience many of the same horrors.

  9. chris moffatt
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    Ah well; maybe on some other of the many worlds he believes he inhabits he’s getting out more and paying more attention – as I hope we all are.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:49 am | Permalink


    • phoffman56
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      That’s a clever ‘dig’, but it should be pointed out that those other worlds contain a doppelganger of Carroll, but not him.

      Some of the worlds have already produced a viable theory of quantum gravity by him or someone. And by now? now only in their world? I don’t think time gets split off, but?? The ‘real’ world of quantum fields has only a single time in the sense of relativity I think. Off topic as usual. Sorry.

      • phoffman56
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        I should have said ‘by his doppelganger’ not “by him”. Just shows me how easy it is to mislead on this!

  10. Steve Gerrard
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    “Thomas Chatterton Williams, a writer for the New York Times, a columnist at Harpers, and also one of the letter’s organizers.”

    How do you find out who organized and wrote this letter? It is obvious to me that 150 people didn’t write it; most of them just read a draft and signed it. (I do like the idea of David Brooks and Noam Chomsky sitting down together for a chat.) Who is behind this letter, and why isn’t that made clear somewhere?

    The letter strikes me as an odd thing. It doesn’t really lead anywhere or propose anything concrete, and I’m not sure it could. Is 150 a lot of signatures? Are they 1,500 people who could have signed it? Is there a list of people who said no? I just don’t know what to make of it, or where to file it.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:49 am | Permalink

      I went by what Dreher said in the American Conservative article; presumably he had some inside information.

      I think the letter isn’t that odd; it proposes an end to the climate of social-media bullying that inhibits discourse.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:35 am | Permalink

        Thomas Chatterton Williams is identified as the organizer in today’s NY Times.


        • Steve Gerrard
          Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          Thanks. I see that Williams is a columnist for Harper’s, so that explains “why Harper’s?” as well. Dots are getting better connected…

    • Niklas
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:19 am | Permalink

      I suppose, if enough people shared the letter on social media, it could make a difference by demonstrating to people that they are indeed not alone. Perhaps it could instill courage enough to speak out at the work place.

  11. Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    I find it somewhat rich that people who are calling for restrictions on free speech are crying about a lack of specifics.

    I have yet to hear their clear definition of what (additional) speech should not be allowed.

    I have yet to hear a coherent definition of “hate speech”.

  12. Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    I dare say the authors of a letter like this are caught in a bind: if they make the contents specific then one has the problem with generalization from the examples and potential side-tracking with worry over details. If on the other hand they keep them general, like was done, they are then in the “what do you mean?” bind.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

      Ah, you beat me to it. Yes, I think this explains Carroll’s reaction. See my below comment.

  13. Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    As I enjoy Sean Carroll’s books and podcasts, it is sad that he’s not supportive of the Harpers’ letter. I have a theory of what is behind his tweet thread.

    I’m guessing Carroll has not engaged with this battle in the past and doesn’t realize the damage that it has done and continues to do. Reading the Harper’s letter would not inform him in this regard. If you weren’t involved in this battle, the letter would come off as stating there’s a big problem but giving no justification. which is pretty much the gist of what Carroll is saying here.

    The letter might have been stronger if some examples were included but that would carry its own risk, as our host explains. I understand why they didn’t give examples but Carroll’s reaction is the result.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Seems to me it would be pretty hard to miss the phenomenon of woke cancelling.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:57 am | Permalink

        Certainly if you read this website but I can imagine that none of this has touched Carroll. He says:

        We are told, for example, that “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class.”

        That literally has happened many times. I doubt Carroll would ignore this. He just doesn’t seem to be aware of it.

        • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:09 am | Permalink

          One might hope that Carroll would take some modest effort to inform himself before expressing his opinion. Is he living in a cave?

          • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:28 am | Permalink

            Yes, an ivory tower in Pasadena as far as I know.

        • phoffman56
          Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:31 am | Permalink

          Yes, Caltech, where Carroll is, has no departments (as far as I can tell) of philosophy or english or sociology etc., I think a contrast with MIT. So it is probably as far from, say, Evergreen College as you can get. So maybe he is ‘blissfully unaware’.

          I do think that short letter could have usefully included something like saying that they assume most readers are aware of many of the specific instances, and also have given a few references. I know it’s not an academic paper, but that would maybe have headed off Sean Carroll’s main possibly substantive criticism. The fact that these signers were mostly I think famous and pretty invulnerable people shouldn’t make it that hard for people to realize that it’s the more vulnerable they are defending.

          • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:37 am | Permalink

            Yes, that might have been the way they should have handled it: reference one of the many articles written on the subject, one that calls out lots of examples. Still, that might have been taken as an extension of the letter, leading potential signers to be forced to agree 100% with the referenced work. The fact that the letter is so bland is probably due at least in part to the need to state only that which with every signer agrees.

          • Posted July 14, 2020 at 11:52 am | Permalink

            Caltech does have “Division of the
            Humanities and Social Sciences”, including (which is why I know) the philosopher of causation, Christopher Hitchcock. Admittedly, it is a very small unit, but it is not non-existent. Just reviewing the people it looks like they have a lot of economists, for example. (Not surprising since “engineering economy” and such is a field.)

            • phoffman56
              Posted July 14, 2020 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

              I clearly did not look hard enough at their website.
              As for MIT, it’s only because of George Boolos having been there, officially in philosophy not mathematics, that made me realize they had a philosophy department.
              Perhaps those places don’t have undergrad programs with those as the sole specialization?
              Remember when some at IAS, not a university of course, had made a large (in that context) stink to try to avoid having historians. That was mainly mathematician(s?) objecting, IIRC.

        • Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

          I’ve seen before where Woke academics are curiously blind to this very issue. They don’t see the problem in their back yard, so to speak. Nor do they move to correct other Woke-ees for over-reach.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:10 am | Permalink

        He’s a physicist, one of the areas least affected by the extremes that are being criticized. “Defund STEM”, if people are actually going to support that in great amounts, would get his attention, presumably.

        That said, previous iterations of this debate, like the “science war”, included spouting off in ignorant ways about physics from such uninformed partisans like Sandra Harding and Bruno Latour.

    • Thanny
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      No, you’ve got it nearly backwards.

      Carroll is not only familiar with cancel culture, but he partakes in it. He’s signed on to at least a couple egregreous de-personing letters against people who had the audacity to state plain facts that were politically inconvenient (to the authoritarian left).

      • EdwardM
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        Citation, please.

        • Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

          I think that Sean Carroll signed the petition condemning Alessandro Strumia.

          Strumia made mistakes in the way he presented his case (he should not have made it personal), but I don’t think he deserved the reaction he got.

        • Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

          There is the Strumia affair.


          Carroll was a signatory to a letter condemning Strumia for his attempt to show statistically that there is no discrimination against women physicists. Strumia subsequently lost his job at CERN.

          I do not know the merits of the case against Strumia, but it sounds like a case of having an unpopular opinion.

          • just josh
            Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

            Strumia is, by multiple accounts, (I work in physics) a jerk. However, the letter against him was a travesty of science and Sean not only signed it, as many did, but was one of the organizers. I don’t know if he actually read it or did any due diligence though.

            • Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, I’ve heard Strumia described as an “Italian Lubos Motl”.

          • EdwardM
            Posted July 8, 2020 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

            I see. Thank you. I did not know this about Carroll. It changes my opinion of him and helps explain his position on this letter. Very sad.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:31 am | Permalink

        References? Examples? Without them you are doing exactly what Carroll accuses the Harper letter of doing. I’m not suggesting you’re wrong but I’m was not aware of this side of him.

  14. EdwardM
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Demands for details of examples cited in the letter are nothing more than a diversion, a (dishonest, IMO) way to distract people from the point. No one is fooled by these attempts and I am disappointed and surprised that Carroll is making them.

  15. Marina
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    You never went through an Inquisition phase, unfortunately it appears to be a must. Pity it happens in the 2000s, pity it will lead to the right (the Maiden’s Tale kind) to win again and again. With all our disgraces, never have I been so glad to be European.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:20 am | Permalink

      You [Americans] never went through an Inquisition phase …

      What would you call McCarthyism, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, the black lists, and the entire Second Red Scare of the late 1940s and the 1950s if not an American Inquisition?

      • Jon Gallant
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        The Inquisition went on for a little longer than a dozen years, and it imposed penalties a tad more severe than blacklisting from a script-writing job in Hollywood. That is no doubt what Marina means about the European experience with the Holy Office of the Inquisition.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

          If it’s that type of Inquisition that Marina is predicting, I’ve seen nothing to suggest that that’s what’s in store for the United States, have you?

          Torquemada seems over the top.

    • kraeuterbutter
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Europe is not paradise.

      Here in Germany, for example, there are similar tendencies to wokeness to those in the USA even though they are much less pronounced. It takes time for US-American trends to establish themselves on the old continent.


      • revelator60
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        One hopes that after watching America’s decline Europe will try and avoid its worst cultural exports.

  16. Ken Kukec
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    It’s disappointing to see people withdrawing their names from the letter because someone they disagree with is also a signatory.

    I thought the subtext to having people from a broad ideological spectrum sign the letter is that people of good will — people who believe in the essential goal of promoting societal justice — could agree that it is ultimately in the interest of achieving that goal to have free, open, and robust public debate, even as among people who may disagree regarding certain aspects of that goal or on how best to promote it.

    • merilee
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:20 am | Permalink


    • Historian
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      “It’s disappointing to see people withdrawing their names from the letter because someone they disagree with is also a signatory.”

      It is disappointing that some people have withdrawn their signatures because they think some other hypocritical signers may have attempted to stifle free speech. In other words, the witdrawers have succumbed to what the letter is warning about – fear of being intimidated because of association with (in McCarthyite fashion) people certain other people don’t like. If a signer agreed with the contents of the letter that is all that should count. Whoever else signed the letter should be irrelevant.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      I sense that some people view this issue through a lens colored by the primacy of people (and their groups, endeavors, etc.) over rational thought and argument, and “stories”, “lived experience” over data. It doesn’t sound so bad when put that way but it’s filled with traps. It encourages people to pit their stories against others with different stories. Group membership is just a shortcut to that battle. Join a group that shares similar stories to yours and then do battle with all the other groups.

    • EdwardM
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Those who are re-considering their signature only make the point of the letter clearer.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:38 am | Permalink

        I guess there’s such a thing as signer’s remorse.

        • EdwardM
          Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:54 am | Permalink

          Are you suggesting they didn’t read it first? I do not believe it. The default assumption I am going on is that they are either offended by the presence of certain co-signers (and their viewpoints) or they are feeling the pressure for signing something that will affect them personally. Either way, it makes the point of the letter all the more.

          • jezgrove
            Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

            Absolutely. At least one signee withdrew their support after learning who else had signed.

            • Filippo
              Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

              “Absolutely. At least one signee withdrew their support after learning who else had signed.”

              I wonder if that signee would be offended if another signee withdrew on account of that signee having so signed.

              (BTW, is it “signee” or “signer”? Has it somehow to do with the main emphasis being on the letter? From my experience, if I sign a check, I’m a signer, or so I’ve been told. Were the signers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence “signees”? [I note spellcheck here doesn’t like “signees.” It recommends “signers.” But it appears to have no problem with the singular “signee.”] Yep, a question of global significance. ;))

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

                Signees are fancy signers 🙂

                It’s like when people say mentor and mentee when it is supposed to be mentor and protege (I left off the accents to seem less fancy). To me it always sounds like “manatee” and I want to respond with, “is that a fat joke?”

              • Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

                “Protegor” and “protegee”?


              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:13 pm | Permalink


              • jezgrove
                Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

                Oops, “signee” was a typo. But yes, you make a good point Filippo!

              • merilee
                Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

                It’s like in Junior High getting invited to a party and rudely asking “Who’s gonna be there?” before accepting the invitation.

              • Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

                Those with lots of social options still do that. 😉 So I’ve heard anyway.

              • Filippo
                Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

                ‘It’s like in Junior High getting invited to a party and rudely asking “Who’s gonna be there?” before accepting the invitation.’

                Perhaps one appropriate response would be (as a young lady once said to me in an unrelated situation) “IIIILLLLL never tell!”

            • phoffman56
              Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

              x does something to (or for) y. Then x is the doer and y is the doee. Surely that’s how that bit of English has always been used. Except that ‘doee’ isn’t a word except, you might think, in a song, where it’s a noise, not a word.

              Those signers are not signees. Another word could be signators for signers, if you want one.

              But the set of signees is the empty set. Finally we have a proof of that set’s existence.

              I don’t think there is, or should be, a word ‘signee’, except to some idiot working for Google when I looked it up.

              But now a RETRACTION: OED does have that word for the signer of a contract. Are you a lawyer, jezgrove, by any chance?

              ‘Buyee’ might be another word for seller, and ‘sellee’ for buyer, but they also seem not to appear in the OED.

              This fails for ‘guarantee’, but because there is no such word as ‘guaranter’, only ‘guarantor’. I can guarantee that, now that the 17 kilogram compact OED is out on my table.

              A signor is an Italian gentleman.

              But there are mentors and mentees these days. The recent inventor of ‘mentee’ should go to jail for breaking my law.

              Inventees in this case are also known as that criminal’s victims.

              Are there ‘menters’?

              So there! Pretty intolerant, eh? Especially for a sayer of “eh”. So the sayees expect tolerance. No way, Jose.

              Anyway, a listener would be a ‘sayee’, and a sayer would be a ‘listenee’.

              We do need entertainment to forget about viri, don’t we? Sorry, viruses.

              Also, there’s no accounting for bad taste in humor. And even less than none for bad taste in humour.

              At least that proves the existence of negative numbers.

              Talking about criminals, were I interested in Scrabble, I could cheat like hell in that after hiding the OED; that size, it needs a 6-foot burial.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, as they told us in elementary school when we voted for stuff – “it’s not a popularity contest”.

      Turns out everything is.

  17. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Well, at least it’s not like he’ll be fired over this. Or have his books removed from libraries or schools. Or be denied tenure. Or have someone with a mask and dark glasses plant signs on his property.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

      All “important people” are just one bad tweet away from oblivion.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        Except tRump.

        • Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

          He’s the exception that proves the rule. Actually, I hate that phrase as I don’t really get it. You are right, of course.

          • ThyroidPlanet
            Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

            I’d say he’s dragging everyone else into oblivion with him, because he’s planning to cushion himself from the impact with them.

            • Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

              That’s an astute observation!

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

            Outlier is a good word in this case, but in Trump’s case it’s an out-and-out liar. I’m here all week.

            • merilee
              Posted July 8, 2020 at 6:42 pm | Permalink


          • phoffman56
            Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

            “..the exception that proves the rule. Actually, I hate that phrase as I don’t really get it”

            Me too. Is there even a single example showing that phrase is no quite completely stupid?

            • Susan H.
              Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

              My understanding is that it’s “prove” in the largely obsolete sense of “to test”, as in 80 proof whiskey. So the phrase means that an exception provides a severe test of the rule.

              • Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

                Yes, I get the sense of proof. But how exactly does an exception provide a severe test of the rule? Is it that we wouldn’t need a rule at all if there were no exceptions? “All birds can fly” is only interesting as there are birds that can’t fly. “All planes can fly” seems less interesting though of course there are planes that can’t (down for maintenance, etc.). Or am I missing something?

              • phoffman56
                Posted July 8, 2020 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

                Normally a rule is an imperative saying. In that sense, and proof in its usual sense, the combination makes no sense. I’d never realized the perhaps unusual interpretation of ‘proof’ which you mention, so that could leave ‘rule’ as being a command, not an assertion.

                There would be no difficulty in finding examples there, just anything that comes close but doesn’t cross the line of disobeying the rule–but maybe does in some peoples’ opinion.

                An exception to a scientific ‘rule’, such as the theory of relativity, would disprove that general rule (‘theory’ usual name) as in simplistic versions of Popper, not prove it. But it seems whenever that happens, something wrong in the exceptional observation, or misunderstood in the meaning of relativity, is soon enough found.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted July 8, 2020 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

            “The exception that proves the rule.”

            That phrase merely means the exception establishes the general rule’s boundaries.

            If you see a street sign that says “No Parking on Sundays,” does that not establish the existence of a general rule that parking IS ALLOWED on Mondays through Saturdays?

            • Posted July 9, 2020 at 12:44 am | Permalink

              Thanks. Sounds simple when you put it that way. I’m not sure people always use it that way, though, but perhaps some people just misuse it. From this point forward, I will see this phrase in a new light.

            • Posted July 14, 2020 at 11:56 am | Permalink

              This is actually related to my discussion of “libertarian” vs. “authoritarian” views of law and policy I do sometimes with my IT security and other colleagues. A neutral point in this pseudoscale says nothing about other days or times at all; a “authoritarian” view would make the sign in a way redundant, because in that “pole”, anything not explicitly allowed is forbidden. By contrast, a “libertarian” view, anything not forbidden explicitly is allowed. It is only in this view that the sign suggests (“conversationally implicates”, to use the philosophy of language jargon) that parking is permitted at other times.

  18. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:45 am | Permalink


    I used the Brave browser on the Harper’s website. Brave reports no fewer than 59 fingerprinting methods being used there.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

      How does that compare with other media websites?


      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

        A certain website associated with the campaign of a certain occupant of a certain house of a certain shade of white has over 50.

        WordPress has 4.

        Some have zero. Google results for example.

        That’s all off the top of my head.

  19. eric grobler
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    New interview with Pinker discussing the campaign against him.

    • Posted July 9, 2020 at 5:40 am | Permalink

      “when you are composing a Tweet, you are going to take some additional caution”.

      That’s generally good advice for anybody posting a Tweet on any subject.

      • Posted July 9, 2020 at 9:33 am | Permalink

        Hard to disagree but that is one way the Woke wins, suppressing free speech. So the instructions should be “Say what you want on Twitter but be careful and be prepared to defend it.”

        • Posted July 9, 2020 at 10:28 am | Permalink

          I was thinking in more general terms. Some people seem to treat Twitter as an outlet for their internal monologue and Tweet all sorts of inadvisable things: things that are OK when talking with a small group of friends but not OK when broadcast to the World.

          The classic example would be tweeting a joke about bombing an airport when you’re on the way to the airport. The authorities tend to overreact in these cases.

          • Posted July 9, 2020 at 10:40 am | Permalink

            Our AI overlords are reading your comment now and the (robotic) police will shortly show up at your door. 😉

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 9, 2020 at 10:54 am | Permalink

          I was always taught when I was in university that I should be able to defend anything I say and I should expect it to be challenged.

          • Posted July 9, 2020 at 11:02 am | Permalink

            Always a good rule of thumb. I remember with internal embarrassment some of the times when I have not followed that rule. Why did I say that?

          • Posted July 14, 2020 at 11:58 am | Permalink

            My better teachers have also said that one should not only expect challenge, but many times *want it*.

  20. Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Positive news. I read the NYT article on the letter today (“Artists and Writers Warn…”), and (1) it was a suprisingly unbiased summary of the letter and debate, and (2) the commenters in the reply section were overwhelmingly and strongly in favor of the letter, which would suggest some readerly pressure to be tapped AGAINST the woke twitterverse the NYT cravenly placates as its present m.o.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

      I’ve gotten that impression too but worried that my sampling methods were biased. It is great to hear that NYT readers (or commenters at least) are pushing back against the tides of Woke.

    • revelator60
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      “the commenters in the reply section were overwhelmingly and strongly in favor of the letter”

      That’s good news and probably more indicative of the general reaction than the kvetching on twitter, a platform that seems to cater to the worst of the cultural elite.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        True, revelator. The twitterverse caters to the worst. They are not a majority — apparently not even a majority of NYT readers — but their oversized mic gives them an oversized influence on orgs like the NYT. Sad. But we can hope that general reaction of which you speak might function in some small way as a wake-up call (and I definitely don’t mean a woke-up call).

    • Posted July 9, 2020 at 5:33 am | Permalink

      This is the point. The woke left shouts loudly but most people don’t agree with them.

      This web site has brought to my attention many articles written by woke people arguing for bonkers woke points, but when you read the comments (if they allow comments, it’s noticeable that they allow comments less often these days), the comments will usually lean towards rationality.

      Social media is an amplification system. It amplifies the people who shout loudest and it amplifies confirmation bias. It gives people a false impression of what everybody really thinks.

      This is why the progressive left is mystified at Bernie Sanders’ failure to be nominated as the Democratic presidential candidate. They believe him to be the victim of a DNC conspiracy or some other nonsense. It’s not occurred to them, that he is actually not all that popular because they only experience their social media bubble in which he is the new messiah.

      Similarly, the likes of PZ Myers have demonised JK Rowling for saying (as far as I can tell) that trans women and biological women are not the same. There’ much wailing and gnashing of teeth from people who have been stabbed in the back by their favourite childhood author or who have always thought he books to be rubbish. However, most people really don’t care and probably privately agree with Rowling when they think about it. As long as her publisher doesn’t cave in to the woke mob, she probably won’t even notice a dent in her book sales.

      The only reason that we need to be concerned about the woke mob at all is that too many employers take it seriously.

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted July 9, 2020 at 8:35 am | Permalink

        “The only reason that we need to be concerned about the woke mob at all is that too many employers take it seriously.”

        I was reading a recent Amazon … thing … a sort of explanation of what Amazon is doing to address problems, and they specifically use the phrase “woke to” as a stand in for “epiphany”, about those problems.

        …. apologies for the nebulous comment -I’ll have to find that piece of writing again…

      • Posted July 9, 2020 at 9:31 am | Permalink

        As you say, I doubt the Woke’s efforts to defame Rowling make much difference to her income. Perhaps more to the point, she’s made so much money it really shouldn’t matter. Still, I suspect that their efforts do make a difference to her reputation. There are definitely people out there that will think, “Rowling has written a lot of fun stories but I hear she has been a racist all along.” After you’ve made so much money, your reputation is pretty much all that matters in one’s public life, or so I imagine.

  21. jezgrove
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    The Guardian published an article containing varying takes on the open letter: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/08/is-free-speech-under-threat-cancel-culture-writers-respond

  22. EdwardM
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Re your update. Evidence and examples will never be good enough for those opposed to the letter.

  23. Diana MacPherson
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    David Gorski criticized the letter in a tweet as well. That surprised me.

    I don’t really understand what Sean Carroll and David Gorski find troublesome – yes Sean has laid out his issues but what is the intuition that this letter grinds against for them? Perhaps they are simply unaware what a chilling effect those who oppose the dogmatism on the Left experience.

    • Oscar
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Do they know for a fact to be immune from a “woke proofreading” of their work, books, appearances? Cause being familiar with both of them, I certainly don’t think so.
      It’s just odd, isn’t it?
      Is it a preemptive appeasing?
      Or have they really been in cancel-culture proof bubble?

    • Richard Sanderson🤴
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

      Oh Man. You have obviously not been following David Gorski in recent years.

      He’s a full-on regressive.

      • Oscar
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        Has he really? I admit I’ve not been following him regularly as of late. He used to be my go to guy for countering health/medicine misinformation… what a shame.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

      Do you have a link to the Gorski tweet?

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

        It’s been an on going discussion. Here Is the. Sin link. You need to open it to see the discussion. Gorski complains about the letter throughout the comments.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

          Main link not sin link. Haha

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

            Open this one to see how he calls it drivel, etc.

            • revelator60
              Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

              Richard Kim is “Enterprise Director” of the Huffington Post, so he’s an expert in fatuous self-important drivel. His job is filling the world with it.

      • dabertini
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

        Hope this is it, PCC(e).

  24. eric
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    . . . they say nothing about what’s to be done to end “this stifling atmosphere.”

    I thought the solution was easy to find in the text: don’t call for retributions for perceived transgressions in speech or thought – even illiberal transgressions. Don’t fire professors for circulating journal articles – even if you think the article is racist and wrong. Don’t bar a journalist from covering a topic based on their ethnicity (or lack of ‘appropriate’ thereof), and so on.

    That’s the solution; let people speak. Yes even when what they say is racist, or hurtful, or conservative. By all means disagree with them. Tell them why they are wrong. Or perhaps don’t take their class/buy their article. But don’t demand they be banned from their job or community because you don’t like what they have to say. If for no other reason than self-preservation – because I guarantee you, no matter how virtuous you think you are, some day someone’s going to be calling for your ostracism for being not sufficiently pure. As the meme goes, only an idiot votes for the Leopards Eating Faces party and then is surprised when a leopard decides to eat their face.

    • EdwardM
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

      Excellent. To many it’s like pearls before swine, but excellent.

  25. darrelle
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

    1/n – I agree with Sean’s 1st sentence, but no the 2nd. I believe him if he tells me he didn’t find the letter persuasive, but I don’t agree that in the general case a letter like this is particularly unpersuasive, and I disagree even more that it is unproductive.

    2/n – I don’t doubt the accuracy of either point, but I don’t see the relevance, particularly his 2nd point, that the signatories are not lacking in ways to have their voices heard.

    3/n – I disagree with the straw-manning claim and that the letter needs to have included specific claims to be honest, or whatever. However, given how common this type of criticism is I think it would have been better if this letter had included attachments or links to a number of specific incidents simply in order to take this criticism away from critics. Of course, as others have pointed out providing specific incidences opens the door to myriad other points of argument.

    4/n – I think Sean is way off base here. Or perhaps as someone else commented he is simply unaware.

    5/n – I think Sean is pounding this point too hard. Their is no obvious intent to deceive by omitting specific examples. Most likely it was a choice to limit the size of the document so that more people would read it and more venues would host it. The letter was never intended to be a definitive exposé on the issues.

    6/n – As Jerry pointed out “cancel culture” does not occur in the letter.

    7/n – I too have sympathy for those fighting the good fight, but I think Sean might be too generous here with giving too much benefit of doubt. I don’t think it is a given that most of the people instrumental in causing most of the incidents that have given rise to the issue are fighting the good fight. Not at all. What’s more, many of the people that are fighting the good fight are opposed to the extremists that have caused many of the incidents in question. Many of the people that signed this letter are in that group.

    8/n – Agree with all this.

    9/n – I agree with all of this too. Unlike Jerry I don’t think Sean was saying that we have to accept unfairness without doing anything to prevent it or correct it. I think he’s just saying that it is inevitably going to happen. But this does not have any implications for the letter.

    10/n – In general I don’t disagree with this either. The things he mentions have all been used to do what he suggests. But Sean is being specific here, saying this with respect to this letter, and his accusations are pretty inaccurate. I don’t see any use of weasel words, I don’t see that the generalizations, sweeping or not, are problematic (ask or look them up yourself) and I don’t see any attempt to undercut the struggle for equality.

    I’m with Paul up above in that I think perhaps Sean just hasn’t paid much attention, at least to the details, of these sorts of incidents. He is generally liberal and sympathetic to the causes involved here and perhaps is more willing to give people presumably fighting the good fight the benefit of the doubt.

  26. revelator60
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    Two good quotes from the WaPo article:

    Richard Thompson Ford: “I’ve witnessed too many cases of ferocious takedowns for defensible if ideologically unorthodox views or relatively minor breaches of political etiquette. This is more true of Trumpian conservatives than anyone, but it is also true of some progressives…I was not told who else had signed [the letter], but I’m not sure why that should matter. 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.”

    Thomas Chatterton Williams: “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. A lot of people did something that I think was kind of an act of generosity on behalf of people who are less established.”

  27. Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    While I realize specifics are not always necessary, specifics would have been a benefit to this letter. “Professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class” is a serious claim — I’m NOT saying it isn’t true, but such a claim could really benefit from an example.

    People, of course, can look up examples of the claims made in the letter, but assuming most readers would actually do that is a bit antithetical to the concerns the letter itself presents; it claims discourse has become (among other things) too reactionary, but is written as though it assumes its readers won’t be too reactionary to its claims.

    All of that is a relatively small issue though. I actually agree that discourse, both in academia and in the general public, has become far too volatile. I think most of the backlash against the letter is due to it being so heavily associated with J. K. Rowling. If news coverage about all this had focused more on signers like Noam Chomsky and Salman Rushdie, instead of J. K. Rowling, the conversation about this letter would be far more constructive.

    • Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

      Article worth a read by Jesse Singal, one of the signers. Quote:

      “The note contains some boilerplate closing language about not wanting to get Yglesias in trouble, suggesting an interesting strategy that makes perfect sense: After all, when I don’t want to get a colleague in trouble, the first thing I do is send their bosses an email about how something they have done has made me feel less safe, and the second thing I do is post that note publicly to Twitter. It’s just a classic example of not wanting to get a colleague in trouble, if I ever saw one.”

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

        Oops, that was not intended as a reply to Daniel.

      • Posted July 8, 2020 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

        That’s at once clever, true, and funny. Bravo, Singal!

  28. Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    LSA writes to Pinker.

    “The Linguistic Society of America is committed to intellectual freedom and professional responsibility. It is not the mission of the Society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression. Inclusion and civility are crucial to productive scholarly work. And inclusion means hearing (not necessarily accepting) all points of view, even those that may be objectionable to some.”

  29. Richard Sanderson🤴
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    A lot of people are saying that Sean might simply have not been paying attention. That’s possible. But as some others are saying, perhaps he should inform himself first before blundering in.

    However, the anti-free speech brigade who keep demanding to see evidence, only double down when they are shown it, and either deny it, or justify it. It is a diversionary tactic. Nothing more.

    In fact, some of them are involved in the very deplatforming and silencing campaigns that they deny exist.

    • rickflick
      Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      “perhaps he should inform himself” – But, you often don’t know what you don’t know. Giving him the benefit of the doubt is reasonable given his history of reasonableness.

      • Filippo
        Posted July 8, 2020 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

        ‘“perhaps he should inform himself” – But, you often don’t know what you don’t know. Giving him the benefit of the doubt is reasonable given his history of reasonableness.’

        Perhaps the signers/signatories should respond to Prof. Carroll’s concerns, giving examples sufficient to satisfy him, in media across five continents. Prof. Carroll surely would not reasonably object to being made that much more known to the mass of humanity. What other alternate, more informative, means would he suggest for signers (and for himself) to get their collective message across?

        • rickflick
          Posted July 8, 2020 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

          Let’s hope he gets some pushback of his own and modifies his views.

      • Posted July 10, 2020 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

        The problem is that he is reasonable on most issues, but I really haven’t seen his reasonableness when it comes to the excesses of the US’s Left.


  30. merilee
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Wow- looks as though you can sub to a fair amount of “Persuasion” for free. No need for the $100.

  31. Posted July 8, 2020 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I think Voltaire had the right of it, as channeled by Evelyn Beatrice Hall:

    I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

    Also Chomsky:

    Goebbels was in favor of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favor of free speech, then you’re in favor of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favor of free speech.


  32. Posted July 8, 2020 at 6:04 pm | Permalink

    Sean Carroll is a fairly common type of person I encounter all the time. They never see anything, and were of the genuine belief that so-called “social justice warriors” were just well-meaning activists who have some simple, easily agreeable slogans (if you aren’t a terrible person). About on the level of “racism is bad” — not any more controversial than that. They say that the critics must really hate social justice, hate women or minorities etcetera and reasons are easily found: entitlement or waning relevance, or the good old grifting, or maybe someone is secretly a fascist? After all, there is nothing to object to, it must be a base motive, or being a “literal Nazi”. That way the term went sour and found only continued usage among the Right.

    Scientology gets the foot in the door by advertising some sort “self improvement”. Sean Carroll is the type of guy who would say that the critics of Scientology are really just “anti-self-improvement”. They never see the specific criticism either, see none of the critique on Xenu or that scientoly is a cult. They always revert to “but they hate self-improvement” and that’s that.
    They retroactively helped to change the definition of “social justice warrior” and it’s used interchangeably with good old “social justice activists” now. Gone is the highly specific meaning.

    There have been other terms, but each was denied by Sean Carroll types as well, in much the same way. Even “woke” is contentous. If you ask them, it’s not a thing. See nothing, hear nothing. This is very interesting, because we are supposed to accept ideas like “cultural appropriation” instantly but can never have a word about this and other concepts, because whatever we want to discuss isn’t a thing.

    The term du jour is now “Cancel Culture” and again it’s not a thing, really, if you ask the Seans. As he says, the term serves to “obscure more than it clarifies”. He’s kind of right, because Cancel Culture misses the wider ideological context. Cancel Culture is woke culture is tumblr critical identity theory and so on. We can keep rotating through terms but Sean will never see anything, and thinks it’s much ado over nothing, but is miraculously the first to defend what doesn’t exist to whoever criticizes it.

    That’s a strange position to be in. After all, if there is nothing here, and the thing being named is “obscured” and the references are too vague and meaningless to him, why would he bother?

  33. FB
    Posted July 8, 2020 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    “I firmly believe that the best response to speech that one disagrees with is to offer better arguments in refutation, not to silence people.” It’s not clear if Carroll thinks that to silence people is wrong or second best.

  34. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted July 9, 2020 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    I agree with Drs. Coyne and Pinker on this one. I am quite disappointed with Sean Carroll’s take on this issue. I think he’s referring to JK Rowling when he says some of the signers of the letter in question have themselves a history of participating in cancel culture. Unlike the Woke, though, I think we should applaud someone who reverses a mistaken policy. JKR is now on the side of progress on this issue and should be accorded appropriate approval for that change. Nothing like being a victim of the twitter mob to encourage one to re-think the mob’s legitimacy.

  35. Posted July 9, 2020 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    “I’ve checked m’priv and I will not have my trans-cis-het-norm lived life experience erased by the colonialist cops! BLM BLM BLAM! ”
    – this is my new official motto, btw, if the inspectors and Thought Police ask you in association with some kind of inevitable inquiry. If you’ll excuse me I’m late for a struggle session. Tonight’s apology theme is “Why I’m ashamed to be white”. I have sent my $6,000 (an hour!) fee to Ms. Di Angelo (receipt enclosed) for my various original sins.

    My preferred pronoun is Khosan “CLICK CLICK” – not the Xhosa click, but the San clicks.
    Remember it or there WILL be trouble.

    Click Click David Anderson
    Attorney at Law

  36. Posted July 9, 2020 at 2:12 am | Permalink

    If anything frustrates me, it’s all the SJWs tying all there issues to not feeling safe. That’s in the letter from the Vox critic and when they canned Bennett at the NYT it was because some of the POC staffers no longer felt safe. Sounds like a four year old. “Mommy, Jimmy said he didn’t like me!”

  37. peepuk
    Posted July 9, 2020 at 5:30 am | Permalink

    My mind reading module says: Sean thinks supporting the good cause is more important than being right.

    I can understand his view, but I don’t agree. Just as there is no moral justification for discrimination there is no moral justification for “the end justifies the means”.

    To find truth empirically, a big amount of free speech is a requirement. We need the ability to challenge bad ideas, not the ability to censor them.

    I’m of course biased, because free speech (after breathing, drinking, eating, having sex and watching TV) is the main thing that makes my life worthwhile. It also keeps me happy because it lowers my expectations 🙂

    • Posted July 9, 2020 at 9:26 am | Permalink

      I think you are right. And that is exactly the source of the Woke’s power. They get people to go along with their theory by portraying themselves as experts on racism and who in their right mind would be against racism? If you don’t agree with them then you must be a racist too. It’s all very logical if you like your logic all twisted up.

  38. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 9, 2020 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

    I read it as Jerry says “calls for swift and severe retribution” and “hasty and disproportionate punishments” happens frequently, and Sean says it doesn’t. Which of course takes me to my usual plaint writ large (since we don’t have statistics for everything) “statistics or it didn’t happen”.

    I can’t say I’m familiar with these things, but I heard that people are going after Pinker here, and Rowlings in the local newspaper, so I think the letter has sufficient support for raising complaint.

    And indeed I can google search key words: “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class” takes me to a case as the third hit.

    “White professor investigated for quoting James Baldwin’s use of N-word This article is more than 10 months old Laurie Sheck, who teaches at the New School, says inquiry followed a complaint that she had discussed Baldwin’s use of the slur.”
    [ https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/aug/15/white-professor-investigated-quoting-james-baldwin-use-of-n-word-laurie-sheck ]

    But of course I have to come up with the search terms in the first place! I don’t know what I don’t know in these cases.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 9, 2020 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

      “Rowlings” = Rowling.

%d bloggers like this: