A group of 150 academics, writers and activists have signed an open letter in Harper’s magazine expressing concern that “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” are “[weakening] norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”. Four writers weigh up the issues
Nesrine Malik: Don’t confuse being told you’re wrong with the baying of a mob
The idea of “cancel culture”, the obvious, albeit unnamed, target of this letter, collapses several different phenomena under one pejorative label. It’s puzzling to me that a statement signed by a group of writers, thinkers and journalists, most whom have Ivy League or other prestigious credentials, would fail to at least establish a coherent definition of what it believes cancel culture is before seeming to condemn it.
The fact is that decisions made by corporate HR departments, failings in editing processes at media organisations such as the New York Times, and the demands of movements for social justice to be accorded recognition and respect do not constitute one clear trend. The new climate of “censoriousness”, if there is one, cannot be diagnosed and dispatched this easily.
In my view, the failure to make these distinctions clear is probably less an oversight and more of a convenient fudge. Because outrage about cancel culture can’t be credibly sustained when you start breaking down what it actually consists of. Companies hastily sacking people who have been mobbed online is about the bottom line and fear of bad PR. It raises interesting questions, but these are more about employment rights and the encroachment by bosses into areas of private opinion and conduct. Being piled on online is nasty, but it is broadly a function of how social media in particular and the internet in general has enabled bullying for the hell of it. Sometimes human beings are unpleasant, and certain platforms are designed to bring out the worst in them. That is separate to the demands for change emerging from many marginalised groups.
In not parsing these different patterns clearly, the Harper’s letter commits the same offence it accuses others of doing: indulging in “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty”.
To those unaccustomed to being questioned, this all feels personal. They have confused a lack of reverence from people who are able to air their views for the very first time with an attack on their right to free speech. They have mistaken the new ways they can be told they are wrong or irrelevant as the baying of a mob, rather than exposure to an audience that has only recently found its voice. The world is changing. It’s not “cancel culture” to point out that, in many respects, it’s not changing quickly enough.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
Jonathan Freedland: The reaction to the letter has shown the need for it
Endorsed by a bulging list of esteemed writers, artists and public intellectuals, this letter might well come to be seen as an inflection point in an argument that has been rumbling away, much of it on social media, for months if not years. And yet, the text hardly reads like some ground-breaking, revolutionary document. Luther’s 95 Theses, it ain’t.
Instead, as one signatory, Anne Applebaum, conceded on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, it consists of a series of statements that are, in themselves, quite “anodyne”. It’s not disparaging to say that the document, like many open letters, represents a lowest common denominator, a bare minimum that would be acceptable – indeed, obvious – to the likes of both Frum and Chomsky. The letter declares, for example, that: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” Are there many who would disagree with those words, who would want to make out loud the case for wishing away what they don’t like?
And yet the statement has not been received as a boilerplate recitation of the case for free expression, but has become controversial. That’s partly because of the text itself – which some have read as brimming with thin-skinned privilege, seeing it as a coded attack on marginalised minorities for having the gall to criticise people with power and platforms – but also, as happens often with open letters, because of the names at the bottom. One name in particular has provoked fury: that of JK Rowling, because of her writings on trans rights and gender. At least two signatories have distanced themselves from the letter since its publication.
It’s clear that a number of people believe Rowling should not be included in such statements, that her views have placed her outside the bounds of acceptable discourse. As it happens, the letter speaks of this phenomenon when it describes “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism.” It seems the Harper’s letter might be a rare example of the reaction to a text making the text’s case rather better than the text itself.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
Zoe Williams: There is no such things as pure freedom of expression
“We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences,” the Harper’s letter concludes. I was about to say I broadly agreed. But wait: broadly? I wholeheartedly agree. How can intellectual inquiry flourish if people can’t express themselves in good faith? Should professional consequences ever be dire for taking what is later considered to be the wrong position in a debate? Then again, this is quite an abstract proposition. Get into the weeds – what counts as good faith, and who decides – and I might find myself on the other side. If David Starkey complained about “so many damn blacks” in good faith, then I’m definitely on the other side. Professional consequences start off dire for the people who are cancelled en masse by structural racism. At least old white dudes get the respect of being cancelled on a case-by-case basis.
This reminds me a lot of the arguments we used to have about religious tolerance in the 90s. Toleration was a good and necessary thing; but what if it meant you had to tolerate people who themselves wouldn’t tolerate you? That would be fine, we’d shrug: how live an issue was that, really? “Very live!” Melanie Philips and others might exclaim. “Look, here’s a preacher who wants you to burn in hell. Eat that, logisticians.” It was part of the remorseless generation of hatred and suspicion towards Muslims, yes: but separate to that, it was a move towards the territory of absolutes. People who are suspicious of, or simply bored by, consensus love to pin liberals down with these paradoxes. It is so droll to watch them flapping about, either side of the wedge.
What we do know is that there is no such thing as total tolerance: it cannot logically tolerate intolerance. And there is no such things as pure freedom of expression either: the expression of some views necessarily encroaches on the dignity and freedom of others. This is partly a failure of speech itself, which has the facility to raise impossible propositions – Eagleton’s unstoppable force meeting an immovable object – but not to resolve them. Mainly it’s a failure of humans. We should think carefully before lining up behind an abstract, on either side – absolutes have a tendency to dissolve on contact with reality. And it’s in reality, of course, with its compromises and discomforts and competing demands, that we actually live.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist
Samuel Moyn: Abuse of the power to cancel is why I signed the letter
I am not a free speech absolutist. Language is part of how our world is constituted. It does not operate free from the dangers and hierarchies of real life; it makes them possible. Calls for open debate routinely conceal the endurance of hierarchies. Distinguishing between necessarily helpful speech and potentially harmful acts, as John Stuart Mill did and as free speech absolutists do, will not work. And without necessarily incurring the risk of slippery slopes, we can ban – or even empower the state to do so. We can cancel too.
But these are powers that do risk abuse and overuse. And that is why I signed the letter, and would do so again.
If it is true that hierarchies are in part maintained – not just undone – by speech, and that speech can harm and not just help, it doesn’t follow that more free speech for more people isn’t generally a good cause. It is.
Recent events have, in my opinion, proved that a successful movement – one with which I sympathise – can err and undermine its further inroads into opinion. Mill was wrong about a lot. But he was right that “the wellbeing of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested”. Recent abuse and overuse of our power to ban and cancel, put simply, have sometimes hurt the continuing normalisation of truths we care about.
I don’t have the standing to talk down to or tutor those angry about the letter. But it is also correct that some of the chief victims of excessive policing of speech in history have been those with progressive politics like mine. I didn’t know who else would sign it when I did, but I reserve the right to criticise many of them, not just for their own hypocritical patrolling of speech in the past but also for their regularly disastrous ideas. Supporting economic and geopolitical catastrophe is far worse than participating in evanescent Twitter mobs or even more harmful censorship. And we will have missed an opportunity provided by those now honourably calling for free speech if we do not continue to indict the world their speech has made.
• Samuel Moyn is a professor of law and history at Yale
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