I’m going to comment on A Letter on Justice and Open Debate published in Harper’s and signed by some big name hypocrites including J.K. Rowling and Farid Zakaria. Some of these folks have egged on the cancellation of people who’s views they disagreed with, so it’s hard to be sympathetic or to take them seriously.
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.
Police reform is a worthy goal. Forced equity and diversity quotas on the other hand are illiberal. To say that so called ‘progressivism’ has ‘tended to weaken open debate’ is an understatement. These so called progressives are censorious authoritarians who seek to destroy anyone who disagrees with their orthodoxy.
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.
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Trump is 100% opposed to the progressive left. He may use them as ‘useful idiots’ to attack the Democrats, positioning his opposition as ‘far left’, as he did by keeping ‘the squad’ front and center, be he is not their ally.
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 ‘progressive’ left has become dogmatic and coercive. It’s not demagoguery to call this out. The so called progressives oppose democratic inclusion (i.e. one person, one vote) by claiming that those with ‘privilege’ should give up their right to participate. The ‘right wing’ is far more tolerant than the ‘progressives’.
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.
If white supremacists are those being referred to as the ‘radical right’, they have little power. If the term refers to Christian conservatives, I haven’t seen them successfully using shaming and ostracism, though they do succumb to blinding moral certainty.
We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters.
I haven’t seen any of the signatories uphold the rights of people like Milo Yiannopoulos or Stefan Molyneux who have been banned by Google.
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.
You didn’t defend Alex Jones, or Milo, or Molyneux, and finally, they came for you.
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.
And yet, as rebel comic book artist Ethan Van Sciver discovered, plenty of people who don’t care what the Twitterati have to say are actively looking for artists that take risks and depart from the consensus, while the mainstream media, movie studios, and publishers are in decline, or at least being punished for their lack of originality.
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.
While having your writing review bombed by the social justice mob isn’t exactly a fatwa, it does mean that everything becomes safe, which means bland. I agree with the signatories. My message to them: As the ACLU used to understand, protecting free speech means protecting it for everyone, even people whose opinions you disagree with, like Donald Trump.