Another weak argument against the Harper’s letter

August 2, 2020 • 9:00 am

Eve Fairbanks is a journalist from South Africa, and her national origins play a substantial part in this rather weak essay on free speech in the Washington Post (click on the screenshot).

Increasingly, I find long-form op-eds in both the New York Times and the Washington Post—the two sources I’m subscribed to besides Andrew Sullivan’s website—that are written so poorly, so discursively, and so loosely, that you can’t ascertain what the point is. Or, at least, if I do see a point, it could have been conveyed in half the allotted space. Such is the “outlook” piece above.

As far as I can see from hacking my way through Fairbanks’s logorrhea, she argues that the liberals who decry “cancel culture,” like the ones who signed the Harper’s letter, are in effect “bullies” trying to police people in the guise of promoting free speech.  On the other side stands the social justice group who “historically have been cut out of publishing, policymaking, and institutional leadership.” Not that the first group doesn’t have a point, Fairbanks argues. And of course only bigots or conservatives would oppose the second group.

It’s just that there’s a third way—Fairbanks’s way—and the way, she says, that South Africa has gone to a salubrious end. And this way is the best way, because it worked. Here’s her Third Way:

But there’s also a third group, one that may be quieter than the other two. These are American liberals who have, indeed, witnessed events or exchanges that made them feel uneasy — online debates in which a speaker’s character is inferred from one or a handful of tweets out of 16,000episodes in which authors agree to withdraw upcoming books after accusations of insensitivity. This third group of liberals recognizes that some of what troubles the Harper’s letter-writers is happening. Simultaneously, though, they think that the problems identified by the first group are real: Whole groups of people have been underrepresented in American life and should, at this juncture, be listened to more attentively.

After reading her piece, I’m reminded of this famous xkcd cartoon:

In fact, I’m not sure that Fairbanks even gave the Harper’s letter a fair reading. For it begins with precisely the same trope:

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.

Throughout the piece, she tries to denigrate the Harper’s letter on several grounds, none of which hold up. For one things, we read above that the signatories of that letter do recognize the need for “greater equity and inclusion,” and several have a history of that kind of work, so we can dismiss Fairbank’s “third way” complaint on those grounds alone.

What about the “bullying”? That, too, is bizarre.

What’s more, these liberals — I’m one of them — often have the frustrating sense that they’re being bullied by the very people who claim that their motivation is to uphold free speech. It’s inescapable, the observation that the pro-free-speech activists exhibit the behavior they ostensibly claim to be fighting: invoking blinding moral certainty, belittling people who disagree with them or threatening them with lawsuits. They claim to celebrate debate but don’t countenance any disagreement about the degree of threat to free speech.

Check out the two links that supposedly show bullying: one is a petulant tweet, the other Bari Weiss speculating about a workplace harassment complaint at the New York Times. The latter is illegal, and so the “blinding moral certainty” can be adjudicated by the courts should Weiss bring a lawsuit, which I suspect she won’t. Two links like that do not give powerful support for “bullying”. In contrast, there is real and substantial evidence for the bullying of cancel culture participants, like that of Rebecca Tuvel, threatened and professionally humiliated for merely drawing philosophical comparisons between transsexualism and transracism.

As for the last sentence of the paragraph above, that’s complete bullpuckey. It’s not as if the advocates of free speech assert it as an unarguable right, for many of them, including Steve Pinker, and, formerly Christopher Hitchens (not a signatory), have actually explained why free speech is necessary in its “hard” form. (I’ve argued that, too, but wasn’t a signatory.) Fairbanks’s claim to the contrary is wrong. There is article after article by liberals explaining the need for and virtues of free speech.

Fairbanks goes on (and on and on), but then raises a very bizarre argument, saying that other people whom we find odious have also argued for free speech, including George Wallace and Rush Limbaugh. And yes, they may have made these arguments in the service of bigotry, but this is basically a kind of ad hominem argument: because reprobates have argued for free speech, there must be something wrong with it.

Fairbanks’s last argument is this:

I came to feel that the speech argument was often wielded by people who worried that their points may be weak. I’ve felt that way about its use on the left, too. Think about its equivalent, rhetorically, in a marital fight: “I can’t believe you’re upset about this.” Such a statement positions the speaker as the rational one and burdens the other party to hedge himself so as not to sound hysterical. It also deflects the argument from its true subject to a dispute over its form — the other person’s way of presenting their complaint. In the Harper’s letter, and in other recent exhortations to the left to protect free speech, there’s a striking absence of any ideas. What propositions do these writers wish they were able to offer? But naming those ideas would open them up again to scrutiny and discussion.

Sorry, but this is also misguided on two fronts. While free-speech advocates do call out people for engaging in bizarre forms of cancellation (the General Tso’s chicken kerfuffle at Oberlin and the Kimono Kerfuffle at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts are two examples), but they do more then highlight the abuses of cancel culture: they explain why they are ludicrous. Need I mention the many people who have defended “cultural appropriation” as a virtue rather than a vice, and done so with actual arguments? T

But the Harper’s letter was meant to highlight a more serious problem: people losing their jobs and reputations for being ideologically impure, often in a trivial way. And “absence of ideas”? What about the idea that we need to ratchet down a culture that tries to hurt people’s lives and reputations for words that don’t deserve such treatment? What does Fairbanks want the signatories to do? The letter was meant to prompt discussion about a problem, not to solve it. But I can offer one solution: inculcate all college first-year students with a unit on free speech.

In the end, Fairbanks raises her own country as an example of how the Third Way succeeded:

South Africa has had its own massive anti-racism uprisings on campuses, its own debates over what academics ought to publish or teach, its own conflicts over whether “deplatforming” somebody is okay, its own free-speech defenders and critics who attacked those defenders in heated, even alarming language. Many of these conflicts happened a few years before their analogues in the United States, because South Africa’s demographic shift is ahead of ours. I felt I was watching our future.

As in America, South Africans who resisted the firing of a columnist or the renaming of a building expressed the most alarm not for the present but for a putative future. They treated these events as harbingers of much more extreme reprisals to come: Give the people who want to “cancel” things a hand, they said, and they’ll take the whole arm, and eventually we’ll be living in a “1984”-like dystopia. You have to push back hard and early.

I believe that many who made this fearful argument really did harbor this concern. The discrimination against South Africans of color was so great over such a long time that — if they truly were liberated from social norms to be cordial — the assumption was that they would seek a comprehensive revenge. But they didn’t. Their demands to rename buildings or exclude offensive rhetoric were not mere bitter performances. Once some buildings were renamed and some academics’ reputations downgraded, they, and the country, mostly moved on.

In other words, recalibrating public debate achieved something real. When the people who had been so angry were given power, often they tempered their arguments, because a real need had been satisfied. New black judges offered clemency to college students prosecuted for hate speech and expanded rights to freedom of expression. Black media personalities consulted white experts and engaged with white authors who’d written controversial works. And most of the people who’d feared being canceled still hold their positions, still speak.

Now I can’t speak directly to how things are going there, as I know little about the culture or, in particular, South Africa’s cancel culture. Grania, were she alive, would have something to say about this.

Clearly the “truth and reconciliation” attitude achieved great things in South Africa, but that was about apartheid and its enforcers, and surely the employment of “cancel culture” would have had a much more violent and divisive effect. A liberal attitude, however, might mandate the very actions of which Fairbanks approves.

Her “solution” is apparently to let the mob tear down statues and impose censorship on “hate speech” and, never fear, cancel culture will vanish of its own accord. Well, what we get is vandalism of Gandhi statues because of his one-time (and self repudiated) bigoted statements), and calls to “decolonize” (i.e., destroy) science by empowering superstition as another way of knowing.” This is a well known video from the University of Cape Town:

Like all the criticisms of the Harper’s letter, Fairbanks’s seems overly captious and misguided. After all, the gist of the letter is simply “treat people fairly, be charitable, and don’t try to injure their lives and reputations for trivialities.” How much is there to object to in that? But to say “not much” is to misunderstand the Authoritarian Left or, in this case, Fairbanks’s so-called Third Way.

h/t: Lawrence

16 thoughts on “Another weak argument against the Harper’s letter

  1. Fairbank’s Third Way reminds me of agnosticism: If you aren’t sure you believe in it (god, free speech), then you don’t. There is no Third Way™.

  2. The subtitle of that WAPO article seems to me to say it all. I don’t know how much the author had to do with writing it. It says:

    “For some, defending free speech has become a tool to bully others into silence.”

    In other words, whoever argues against me is trying to bully me into silence. At least maybe South Africans don’t misuse the word ‘hate’.

    Not, in this example, the 150 somewhat famous authors of the letter more-or-less saying: ‘Please ignore any campaign which would try to ruin someone’s career because of their public statement 40 years ago which could be slightly harmful to say today; and which, 40 years later, the sayer would probably disagree with herself or himself. But free speech would also allow the deluded people, who try to start such a campaign, to go ahead and try. However think for yourself, don’t jump on every bandwagon to prove your virtue’

  3. It seems that Fairbank has entirely missed the point. As PCC(E) notes, the opening paragraph of the Harper’s letter clearly states, “As we applaud the first development [greater equality and inclusion], we also raise our voices against the second [weakening of open debate and toleration of ideological differences]”. Her third way is an unnecessary word salad, as far as I can see.

  4. The foundational problem with Cancel Culture is that it has become a monster. It is too often wielded as an actual Twitter mob, or a Twitter mob in effect. As such a Cancel Culture campaign against someone shows little ability to temper its actions against those who had committed a mild and inadvertent Offense. It displays no ability to not launch itself, full force and screaming, against someone who has actually committed no offense at all. Finally, it cannot differentiate between a “small” person, an author of young adult fiction or a librarian, versus a prominent Thought Leader who is worth millions. The former are persons who are well ruined by the attentions of CC. The latter can weather it.
    This summarizes the foundational problem to CC. Those who oppose the Harper letter can not or will not acknowledge this problem.

  5. Fairbanks’ article is one of many similar responses to the Cancel Culture vs The Letter battle. It’s a sort of “both sides” argument where they acknowledge both have merit but where they just don’t see what the big deal is and why people are so angry. My guess is that they don’t have strong awareness of CC for various reasons. Perhaps they don’t spend much time with social media or they live in a country where CC hasn’t taken hold. Perhaps it hasn’t reached South Africa yet. They also have yet to engage with the pernicious thinking behind Critical Race Theory and the culture it has spawned. In short, they share the complacency which has allowed this movement to creep up on us and to dominate so many important institutions.

  6. Fairbanks’s piece is a mish-mash of exaggeration (that any criticism of her side is equivalent to “threats” and “bullying”), of well-poisoning (that because right-to-free-speech arguments have been raised by odious characters like George Wallace and Rush Limbaugh, all such arguments are perforce suspect), and of casuistry (that liberals’ objection to the FCC’s yanking Limbaugh’s license is tantamount to their insisting that his critics bite their tongues and silently acquiesce to the garbage that he spews) — in all, a few hundred words’ worth of specious argument, give or take, squeezed into 17 paragraphs of prime WaPo editorial-page real estate.

  7. “This is a well known video from the University of Cape Town:”

    I look forward to reading where Fairbanks states for the record her position on whether and how superstition compares with the scientific method as a reliable way of knowing. The same with sex as a biological fact or social construction.

  8. The South African premise is extremely weak. The country was never more than 20% white throughout the whole of the apartheid era, and in the last decade of apartheid the white share of the population hovered just above 10%. There has been no “demographic shift” there; it’s what it was the whole time. Apartheid ended barely more than 25 years ago, massacres and crimes against humanity had been committed directly by the government in the 1980s necessitating the TRC. Already some of the deals made at the time to ensure a peaceful transition, no forced land sales and the like, are falling apart, which isn’t surprising given that the existing political parties are racialized and one race holds an 80% demographic supermajority in a democratic nation.

    Meanwhile, it’s been more than 50 years since the end of Jim Crow, the federal government had spent 15-20 years prior fighting including Brown v. Board and actively prosecuting and breaking up the terrorist Klan, the black share of the population has barely increased by a percentage point or two, and the white (in the narrowest possible sense of the word) share of the population remains somewhere between 70 and 75 percent, from about 85 percent fifty years ago. All of the Southern Dixiecrats are long dead, so who would a TRC investigate and reconcile with? These situations aren’t even remotely comparable. What would Eve Fairbanks have, a situation where everyone but a coalition of white, Hispanic, and Asian liberals, and the non-conservative portion of the black population, are disenfranchised from participation in public life? Somewhere between 75-80% of the country should just shut up and keep their opinions to themselves? “De-platforming” indeed. It’s depressing to watch our prestige media institutions circle the drain of insularity so rapidly.

  9. If that’s the feeling about science among the youth of Africa I don’t hold out much hope for their future.

  10. The Third Way in action:

    The black historian Nell Irvin Painter is a signatory to the Harper’s letter, and as chair of the board of directors as of January,2020, she wasted no time taking the word “Colony” out of the name because it represents oppression and so forth.

    Painter’s interpretation of the Third way is called Having your cake and eating it, too.”

  11. The youtube video following the one posted, the flabbergasted talking head criticising the superstitious student said this:
    “If I want to commit suicide I would climb her ego and jump through her IQ”
    …that gave me a chuckle. To be fair you have to watch it for context.

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