I thought I wouldn’t write any more about “The Letter”, which of course refers to the Letter in Harper’s and four other international venues decrying “cancel culture” and promoting open debate and free speech. That piece,”A letter on justice and open debate“, with 153 signers, now sports its own Wikipedia page!
Over the past few days I’ve read a number of pieces both in favor of and against the letter, though one would think that a standard call for freedom of speech, and against “cancellation” (hounding, bullying, and trying to ruin people’s reputations and careers in place of debate and counterspeech) wouldn’t be that controversial. But to think that would be to underestimate the prickliness and capacity for outrage of the Woke.
Today I want to call your attention to two short articles in favor of The Letter, but first I’ll summarize the objections that I’ve seen, which I’ve put in bold (my answers are in plain type).
1.) The signers of the letters were famous, rich, and entitled, and had nothing to fear from calling for free speech. This completely misunderstands the purpose of the letter, which was to have powerful voices stand up on behalf of those who have no such power, and who have been cowed into silence by the mob. The answer is simple, and was given by Steve Pinker in this tweet:
2. The signers of the letter were not silenced; after all, they published a big letter that got a lot of attention. They were beefing about nothing. Response: see #1. They weren’t complaining about their own cancellation.
3. Many of the signers, while calling for free speech and open debate, tried in the past to suppress other people’s speech, so they were hypocrites. I have no knowledge of any such attempts, but even if there were one or a few, it’s the principle of the letter itself that was being endorsed. Indeed, you could do a pot/kettle thing here and note that at least two people who worked for Vox complained on Twitter about one colleague, Matt Yglesias, who signed the letter. One of the Vox employees, a trans woman named Emily VanDerWerff, sent an email to her and Yglesias’s boss, which she posted on Twitter, saying that Yglesias signed a transphobic letter that made her feel “unsafe.” The letter was not transphobic, and I can’t imagine how VanDerWerff felt “unsafe” (I tend to be dubious about such claims.)
4. Nevertheless, Ezra Klein, a co-founder of Vox and an editor-at-large, issued this tweet raising another canard: the signers of the letter were merely trying to gain power and glory by publishing it. The pushback from the Woke was merely a call for them to debate rather than tout themselves and “cancel” others.
Klein’s “dog whistle” (LOL):
Yglesias deleted his tweets, apparently because the Boss asked him to:
And Klein got some well-deserved pushback. Claims of “feeling unsafe” are all too often a way to call attention to yourself and your feelings, thereby avoiding debate.
One of the exponents of this view is the reliably Woke (and obtuse) Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who apparently missed the point of The Letter:
5. Bad people (e.g., J. K. Rowling) signed the letter, rendering its message completely worthless. See the response of Wendy Kaminer below. Here’s an example of hyperbole from a piece criticizing The Letter in In These Times:
I say this, of course, in the context of today’s letter, published in Harper’s and signed by more than 100 of the worst people in the world of public intellectualism, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.”
Seriously? “Worst people in the world?” I’d rather hang out with these people any day than with the writers at Vox.
6. The Letter was full of right-wing and anti-trans “dog whistles”. This claim is based on no evidence, existing solely in the Pecksniffian minds of the critics. The letter doesn’t mention anything that approximates “dog whistles” criticizing transsexual people or pandering to conservatives. If you don’t believe me, read it again.
7. The letter didn’t give examples of “cancel culture” transgressions. Rightly so, and for a reason—it was making a larger point and didn’t want to get bogged down in specific details. As we’ve seen in several rebuttals, any example of “cancellation” given can always lead to an argument by the woke about how it was really something else, and those arguments become unending, mired in minutiae. In fact, there’s no doubt, except among the Woke, that there is indeed a new a climate of chilled discourse in America and the UK. The evidence for that, which I cited yesterday, is that a large fraction of college students, especially conservatives, are simply afraid to open their mouths on campus. It resembles the chilling of the McCarthy era when people were sniffing out “communists” everywhere.
8. The letter called out the Left but not the Right for suppressing speech. This claim is palpably ridiculous; read the letter again. It explicitly mentions the Right and Trump, but does concentrate on cancellations by the Left, which are those that are most frequent and get most of the attention, playing into the hands of Trump and Faux News, which report on this stuff regularly. And nearly all the signers I’d classify as on the Left.
9. The letter was motivated by racism: to suppress marginalized people who were “punching up”, so that those who called for free speech were the elitist signers, not the oppressed. This is a claim that might have been expected given the ubiquity and power of calling people racists. One example of this accusation is below:
This is a ridiculous assertion with no evidence behind it. Further, many of the signers were from minority groups, which makes the accusation even more ludicrous. But since when have the Woke cared about accuracy?
On to a brief mention of the two articles defending The Letter. They’re by two people whose writings I always enjoy: Wendy Kaminer and Nick Cohen. Although I rarely disagree with them, I still read them religiously because they often have fresh viewpoints, and Cohen gives the viewpoint of a journalist working in Britain. Here’s Cohen writing in The Guardian:
I’ll quote him only briefly, as his piece, and Kaminer’s, deserve full reading. I cite this bit because it reprises, in the third paragraph below, the ridiculous obsession of the Washington Post with a “blackface” incident that wasn’t racist but was meant to call out racism: the racism of Megyn Kelly. Truly, showing up in blackface is not a good move, but the motivations of the woman, a government employee who got fired two years after the incident, weren’t even considered. The Post went nuts writing long articles about her:
I’m surprised such a statement of the obvious could be controversial. No honest observer can deny that the dominant factions in the modern progressive movement reject freedom of speech. They punish opinions they disagree with when they have power; and the more power they have, the more they will punish. You may think the censorship justified, but to deny its existence is absurd. Tellingly, few bother to deny it now. Occasionally, you can see them raise the exhausted excuse from the grave that only the state can censor. On this reading, Islamists killing cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo, or CEOs firing whistleblowers, are not censoring because they are not civil servants. More popular in the past week has been the claim that writers with the reach of Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie cannot take a moral stand because no one can suppress their thought – even though their critics give every impression of wanting to do just that.
Leave aside their belief that ad hominem and ad feminam attacks can refute an argument, and consider that the worst of the old elite directed its attention to silencing the marginalised because it knew that their voice was often the only weapon the latter possessed. Then look around. Now as then, people without access to lawyers and influential friends suffer the most.
To take an example of that encapsulates the cowardice of our times: the Washington Post, a newspaper I admire and have written for, went to enormous lengths to destroy the life of one Sue Schafer, a middle-aged woman who made a mistake. She turned up to a Halloween party at the home of one of its cartoonists in blackface. She did not mean to insult African Americans but had come dressed as a ghoul in the guise of a conservative morning show host who had defended whites blacking up. The joke didn’t work, as several guests forcefully told her. Because the words “Washington Post” and “blackface” could be said in the same sentence, and because several guests looked as if they might go public two years later, the paper gave 3,000 words to the “story” – the amount of space normally reserved for a terrorist attack or declaration of war. Her employer, a government contractor, fired her. Everyone’s back was covered except Schafer’s and, frankly, she was a woman of no importance.
Panic at the fear of denunciation and bad faith posing as rectitude can be found across the west. A comparison with the right shows how deep the decay has reached. Conservatives know there are thoughts they cannot whisper – Brexit is a mistake comparable to Munich and Suez, anti-black and anti-Muslim racism are tangible evils, poverty makes a nonsense of equality of opportunity. Likewise on the liberal left, the canny careerist takes care to avoid being caught on the “wrong side” of arguments about trans and women’s rights, leftwing antisemitism, and bigotry in ethnic minorities. The canniest decide the best course is to say nothing at all.
There’s a lot more, and a good rationale for the Left calling out its own, but I’m running out of time and space.
Do read Kaminer’s piece in spiked (click on screenshot):
Two brief excerpts of a brief article:
‘I rest my case’, I’m tempted to say, reviewing the unhinged responses of cancel-culture fans intent on cancelling the judicious defence of free speech in our ‘Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, published by Harper’s this week. I signed emphatically, which makes me one of ‘the worst people in the world of public intellectualism’, according to In These Times. What’s so bad about defending ‘the free exchange of information and ideas’ and critiquing ‘intolerance for opposing views’ and ‘a vogue for public shaming and ostracism’? In doing so we were not really defending the right to debate and criticise, according to In These Times: we were trying to squelch debate and censor our own critics, exhibiting a ‘bizarre aversion to being argued against … [that] now borders on the pathological’.
This is what citizens of cancel culture have apparently learned from Donald Trump: confound your critics by accusing them of precisely the sins you’re busy committing. Social-justice warriors have long demanded protection from the ‘trauma’ of hearing speech they deem offensive, calling for suppression of the speech and shunning of the speaker. So, employing Trumpian tactics, they accuse free-speech advocates of the censoriousness and psychic fragility that’s the raison d’être of their movement.
. . .I saw only a partial list of signatories when I agreed to sign and didn’t pay it much attention. I focused on the text, not the names endorsing it. I’m not responsible for their views (which I don’t always share), and they’re not responsible for mine. The refusal to endorse a statement you support and consider important because it will be endorsed by people with whom you sometimes differ reflects the intolerance for debate that the letter addresses.
I disagree with many of spiked’s writers, for example, and they, no doubt, disagree often with me, but in my view that’s what makes spiked interesting. I have no desire to speak only with or to people who applaud me.
This apparently contrasts with the Woke opponents of the letter, who desire to converse only with those who agree with them. The others they shout down, and, if possible, ruin their careers. Kaminer is spot on when she notes that it is the censors who most loudly accuse The Letter’s signers of censorship.