John McWhorter on the Harper’s letter

Linguist John McWhorter doesn’t go along with the prescribed narrative of Critical Race Theory, and as an African-American he’s received his share of opprobrium for that. He mentions the pushback in his new piece in Quillette (click on screenshot), but characterizes it as coming with the territory, and sometimes even useful. More important, McWhorter explains why he signed the “letter on justice and open debate” in Harper’s (and four other international publications) decrying “cancel culture.” His publishing this in Quillette will, of course, earn him extra demon points, as Quillette is mistakenly regarded—and called—an “alt right” site by the Offense Crowd.

Below I give a few links to essays that decried the Harper’s letter, mostly because, as McWhorter says, they misunderstood the letter as showing that the signers were “merely whiners—people with impregnable career success, flustered that social media is forcing us to experience unprecedented criticism, particularly in the wake of the Floyd protests.”

Of course if you read the letter, you’ll know that that wasn’t its aim, but the unstoppable momentum of Offense Culture doesn’t worry about niceties like that.The letter says nothing about “cancellation” of the signatories, but makes this general point about the chilling of speech in general among those who write or speak:

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.

As I’ve said, if you doubt this chilling effect, simply look at the statistics showing how many college students are afraid to speak their minds for fear of being labeled as bigots.

Here are just a few sites that found reason to object to an unobjectionable letter: The Los Angeles Times, Vox (of course), techdirt, The Objective, The Daily Beast, Slate, and In These Times, whose author, Hamilton Nolan, calls the signers “more than 100 of the worst people in the world of public intellectualism.” (That ad hominem itself proves the point of the Harper’s piece.)

At any rate, McWhorter has a good takedown of the critics:

McWhorter first summarizes the real point of the letter:

Discussion of this issue has become mired in semantic quibbles over just what constitutes “cancellation”—the LSA letter signatories were at pains to stress they did not wish to “cancel” Pinker. But the demand that he be shamed and sanctioned sent an unmistakable message to other writers and scholars not protected by his success and reputation. Nor is this simply a debate about “free speech,” or about whether or not it is still permissible to argue the merits of slavery or women’s suffrage. The more pressing problem is that opinions which, until recently, were well within the Overton Window of acceptable discourse are being bracketed under the same umbrella as unambiguously outlandish and hateful opinions that really do now lie beyond the limits of civilized discussion. Today, views deemed insufficiently anti-racist (or also anti-misogynist) are increasingly described as thinly coded expressions of racism and misogyny that we are encouraged to treat as such.

He then gives six examples of people who were subject to career-damaging social-media mobs over what seem trivial issues. Three of these involve relatively powerful people, like a New York Times food columnist, but three others are of non-famous people who lost their jobs after ridiculous kerfuffles. I’ll show the latter three in McWhorter’s words:

  • A data analyst at a progressive consulting firm tweeted a link to a study by a black Ivy League political science professor, Omar Wasow, which found that violent black protests during the long hot summers of the late 1960s were more likely than nonviolent protests to make local voters vote Republican. Wasow’s findings had been reported by the Washington Post as far back as 2015 without incident, and the analyst’s intention was clearly progressive—he was not anti-protest, but wanted to draw attention to the fact that violence might harm Democrats’ electoral chances come November. But following the death of George Floyd, criticizing street violence suddenly became taboo in some progressive circles, and so the thread below the analyst’s tweet began to fill with caustic sanctimony. When a random Twitter user tagged his employer with the instruction “come get your boy,” the consulting firm shamefully expelled him.
  • Two years ago, a young white woman attended a costume party thrown by the Washington Post. She arrived dressed as Megyn Kelly in blackface, a reference to Kelly’s recent defense of the trope that had resulted in the news anchor’s abrupt exit from NBC. This was hardly a graceful decision regardless of intent, and a number of attendees (including the party’s co-host) made this clear to the guest. She left the party in tears and apologized to the host the next day. But in June of this year, a (white) management consultant and a (black) artist who had both confronted her at the party approached the Post with their story, which two of the paper’s writers somehow managed to work up into a 3,000-word feature. When she warned her employers that a story about her mortifying faux pas would be running in a national newspaper, she was fired.
  • A newly hired nursing dean was fired from her position for sending an email which included the newly taboo phrase “everyone’s life matters.” But in the context of her email the phrase could hardly have been more innocuous:

I am writing to express my concern and condemnation of the recent (and past) acts of violence against people of color. Recent events recall a tragic history of racism and bias that continue to thrive in this country. I despair for our future as a nation if we do not stand up against violence against anyone. BLACK LIVES MATTER, but also, EVERYONE’S LIFE MATTERS. No one should have to live in fear that they will be targeted for how they look or what they believe.

An obscure data analyst, a private citizen with no public profile, and the dean of a nursing school hardly have their hands on the levers of power, and yet people like these are as likely to be persecuted under the new mood as the heads of art museums and leading food columnists (if indeed people in public positions like those can reasonably be considered powerful). These are the new norms and the modus operandi that alarm those of us who signed the Harper’s letter, not any perceived threat to our own careers.

These three cases beggar belief. True, the woman fired for showing up in blackface did not act wisely, but her act was meant to mock those who use blackface as a racist trope. The Washington Post‘s decision to make a huge story about it several years after the incident is incomprehensible except that the paper (as we know already) is doing virtue-signaling journalism. And the woman was fired. This tendency to ruin people’s careers in lieu of debate is what “cancel culture” is really about.  I never would, and never have, as I recall, tried to get anybody fired.

In the end, McWhorter makes a good point: many people are leveraging the death of George Floyd as a way to settle their own scores. That sounds harsh, but it’s palpably true. The protests over police brutality and murder of people of color are, of course, laudable, but piggybacking on them is a wave of often unhinged Social Justice activism, which has even washed over my own university.  As McWhorter says in measured tones, “Get a grip, people.”:

Some people appear to consider attempts to defrock “offensive” thinkers as a natural outgrowth of the Black Lives Matter protests, as if opposition to cancel culture constitutes opposition to any and all objections about police misconduct. This is painfully reductive. We wish to resist a dangerous outgrowth of a development that is, in itself, laudable. The citizens listed above were also the victims of injustices that merit attention and compassion, and any implication that it is tactless to say so while Black Lives Matter has the floor is, frankly, rather antihuman. Those who want to reform American policing and to defenestrate people for rhetorical torts and slip-ups as a part of that project should understand that history needs them for the former but will deride them for the latter. They would do better to focus their energies on matters of genuine societal urgency.

35 thoughts on “John McWhorter on the Harper’s letter

  1. But in the context of her email the phrase could hardly have been more innocuous:

    Eh, her letter sounds like a right-winger ‘Trojan horsing’ to me. I don’t see much innocuous about it.

    But then again, were I her employer, this would’ve elicited nothing from me beyond a send-to-all notification “General note to all employees: work email is not to be used to make personal, political, or religious statements. Thank you.” Whatever her political motivation, what she did was nothing more than, at most, a minor breach of professional workplace conduct.

  2. Thank goodness we have a John McWhorter who can speak for some of us using language as it should be used. I am so tired of the current focus on not expressing any ideas that may injure someone’s tender, childish feelings. Issues need to be brought out into the light and discussed as adults with the intent of clarifying stances and, hopefully, modifying opinions. Our young people in high schools and universities especially need to learn such skills before going out into the business world and whining enough about language to cause job losses.

    Rather than blathering, there is important work to be done to rectify the long term inequities experienced by black (brown, yellow, etc.) communities. There are too many
    such inequities to address to spend our time talking and not working toward justice.

  3. McWhorter’s take, and others we’ve been discussing are laudable, and to me, effective. I have to wonder what the canceler’s think about this push-back. Certainly some rabid practitioners will not be touched. Perhaps a larger percentage will gradually start quitting the movement.

    1. One observation, on a site I read regularly, a science fiction author’s site, where the majority of the readership range from progressive to far left, about all I’ve seen is scorn in response to the Harper letter. It is rather depressing reading. People making claims and accusations about it that would seem to indicate that either they’ve never actually read the letter or they are lying. There are also numerous examples of simple denial of “cancel culture,” denial that it is a significant factor and also some who don’t deny it and think it is righteous.

      And many of these people are otherwise sharp and decent on most other topics. Sort of analogous to NdGT’s explanation of how even great scientists like Newton evoke God when they reach the limit of their competence.

      1. I’m sure psychologists and sociologists will become ecstatically happy publishing papers on such absurd obeisance, for years to come.

      2. A science-fiction author’s site, eh? I am in the midst of reading “Astounding”, a joint biography of John W. Campbell and the authors in his circle in the golden age of sci-fi (Asimov, Heinlein, etc.). The political postures of these authors were various and somewhat unexpected.

        1. I remember Heinlein as being pretty right-wing and Asimov as being a middle-of-the road liberal. Heinlein would probably be drummed out of the Author’s Guild if he were writing today.

          1. Heinlein is pretty controversial when it comes to people trying to nail down which ideological slot he fits into. Many people these days on all “sides” slot him as a conservative libertarian.

            I’ve read nearly everything he’s written and I don’t think that’s accurate. Part of the problem I think is that what conservative and libertarian mean today aren’t quite the same thing as they were back in the 50s and 60s. Heinlein strikes me as a classic liberal with a serious dollop of hippie (though he was from an earlier generation), which seems to be ignored by so many. I can’t imagine that if he were suddenly transported to today that he would consider today’s conservatives as his ideological brethren.

            1. The only Heinlein novel I’ve read is “Stranger from a Strange Land”. (I liked it btw.) I didn’t know anything about his politics at the time, but from reading that, I assumed he was a hippie/liberal.

            2. Right! Heinlein worked in the 1935 campaign for governor by the Socialist Upton Sinclair.
              Heinlein was also a classic Liberal (in the old sense) who despised Communism. Added to the mix, he had been a navy officer (retired on disability) and admired disciplined work and professional competence. So, yes, he would not slot into any of our contemporary categories–to the detriment of those.

            3. I think I got the impression that he was a bit right-wing from Starship Troopers, but it’s been years since I read it and my recollections are a bit hazy. As I recall, he wasn’t religious, so he certainly wouldn’t be a Pat Robertson / Ted Cruz supporter if he were still alive today.

        2. My deceased husband, son and I have read all of Heinlein numerous times. Recently, I decided that I should try to do the same in re the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. I had read all the robot books (love them) and first three Foundation books. I also read his detective stories, autobiographies, etc. And I have his version of the Bible.

          Heinlein, Asimov, and John W Campbell were friends and/or contemporaries with L Ron Hubbard (I’ve read none of his sci fi). I recently started to read Campbell’s letters and stopped part way through when he became so enamored of pseudoscience and L Ron Hubbard that his friendship with Asimov terminated. I may try to take it up again, but he was inclined to enjoy arguing to the point of being a Devil’s Advocate on such issues as slavery and race.

          1. Rowena, you will enjoy the book I am reading:
            “Astounding” by Alec Nevala-Lee. Hubbard, who was indeed close to Campbell, was a gifted fantasist, also an egoist and bullshitter.
            The book details the history of virtually all the writers of that generation, including Fred Pohl, Sprague de Camp, A.E. Van Vogt, etc. etc. It also evokes the culture of the time, i.e., the 30s-40s-50s.

      3. “on a site I read regularly, a science fiction author’s site, where the majority of the readership range from progressive to far left, about all I’ve seen is scorn in response to the Harper letter.”

        That doesn’t really come as a surprise. My impression is that online SF fandom was one of the early incubators of woke cancel culture.

        1. You might be thinking of the online feud that became known as “Racefail” (involving Will Shetterly et. al).

        2. I wouldn’t deny that but I don’t think the online SF fandom arena is at all special in that respect. I mean there was, is, a significant right wing a~~!@#$ contingent among both fans and authors in that same arena and up until at most the past couple of years (if that) that contingent was far and away the loudest and most noxious contingent in the arena. Looks pretty much like any other arena to me in that respect, including the all encompassing “general public.”

          1. I think the spectrum of science fiction authors has been and, still is, very broad in terms of what their politics may be and what they choose to write about. Think of Robert Heinlein to Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury to Orson Scott Card, Connie Willis to Catherine Asaro, Margaret Atwood to Kage Baker, etc. So much diversity to choose from.

  4. I think it productive that McWhorter delved into a discussion of six specific instances that prompted The Letter — or at least prompted him to sign onto it.

    One of the more common criticisms of The Letter has concerned its lack of specificity. I fully understand why The Letter’s drafters avoided such specifics, for fear of getting bogged down in lengthy discussions of particular cases (and, perhaps, for fear of fracturing the 100+ coalition of signatories over differences of opinion on any given case).

    But lodging their complaint against “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” in such generalities was a bit like staging Hamlet without ever mentioning the death of the King, merely alluding to some troubling developments in the line of succession at the Castle Elsinore.

  5. McWhorter makes the case very well, and so does our host, except that one matter calls for expansion. “…but piggybacking on them is a wave of often unhinged Social Justice activism…”

    That is well put, but I fear that the referenced activism is not entirely exactly unhinged. Some it is due to individuals whose psychology hinges precisely upon achieving domination over others. Such individuals routinely piggyback their urge-for-power onto seemingly admirable “progressive” goals such as, for a 1917 example, “Land and Peace”. I submit that fascism represents not just a politics but a personality type as commonplace on the Left as on the Right. [The personality type in question was exemplified by the inventor of capital F Fascism himself: a few years earlier he had been firebrand editor of Avanti, the voice of the Italian Socialist Party.] The fascist personality was well
    represented in the group that piggybacked their seizure of power in Russia on pretend slogans such as “all power to the Soviets”.

    Confusion about this point underlies the feebleness that well-meaning progressives regularly display in reponse to Left fascism. A classic case was the Russian Mensheviks who meekly accepted the Bolshevik armed dispersal of the fairly elected Constituent Assembly in January of 1918. Meekness of a related sort is all around us these days in Academia, and not only there.

  6. Worth mentioning again that twitter thread that you posted about a week ago which has tons more examples of cancellations of everyday people (and famous people too). The thread has over 150 examples at this point.

  7. McWhorter was completely unknown to me until recently. Your posts about him led me to his appearances on Glenn Loury’s and Coleman Hughes’ podcasts. I hadn’t heard of them either and it has been an interesting and enlightening experience, even when I don’t agree with them. This has given me a different outlook on things that I don’t ever hear from friends, family, or coworkers and while I wish I could have open conversations with people about the topics and angles shared by McWhorter, Loury, and Hughes, if I did I would quickly find myself friendless and unemployed.

  8. As the commenter Historian has pointed out here several times, the real problem in all of these instances is not the call for cancellation by a Twitter outrage brigade, with the often-unstated but clearly-implied message that heads must roll or something bad will happen to your business/university/website. The real problem is the capitulation to their demands by administrators and decision-makers in businesses, universities, government administration, and journalism. We can’t expect the ultra-Woke to resist calling for heads to roll — this is just what they do. But we can expect or hope that people who run newspapers and businesses might grow a spine and resist the urge to give in to threats and intimidation.

  9. “Ibnever would, and never have, as I recall, tried to get anybody fired” – me too, unless you count the incumbent in an election!

  10. McWhorter also writes for The Atlantic and The Daily Beast. I’m curious if this article was turned down by those publications and then offered to Quillette.

    1. I first encountered John McWhorter through his linguistics book, “The Power of Babel”. I have one, not all of his Great Courses. After reading about his signing of “… the “letter on justice and open debate” in Harper’s (and four other international publications) decrying “cancel culture,” I bought four of his books on language to read. I hope to get to them very soon after I finish the book I’m currently reading on mythology.

  11. A late comment. But Dr. McWhorter writes:

    “The president of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was forced to resign after a meeting during which the museum was criticized for being insufficiently committed to non-white artists. ”

    It wasn’t the president, it was the chief curator, Gary Garrels.

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