room for [...] mistakes.
July 9, 2020 7:13 AM   Subscribe

A couple of days ago, Harper's Magazine published an open letter - A Letter on Justice and Open Debate - it had had in the works for a few weeks, signed by 153 authors and academics. The ensuing reaction and commentary and has been swift and intense. posted by progosk (204 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
Please, Seriously? Come On. - David Roth and Maria Bustillos [ formerly of The Awl and Deadspin]
Maria: Sure! [*grinds teeth*] What I was gonna say was, they list these crimes in a vaguely censorious way, then comes the mad pivot: “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.”

Here’s yr. central rhetorical disaster: “Whatever the arguments.”

David: The classic phrase we love to see and blithely accept.

Maria: Sorry, Discourse Experts! You can’t wave that away, you haven’t named the incidents, let alone the arguments. It’s astonishingly poor reasoning.

David: There’s something kind of touching about it, because they don’t want to exclude any of the people who felt gored by this particular ox.

Maria: Yeah. And then, to add insult to injury, “steadily narrow the boundaries,” as if James Bennet’s ouster had had the result of making people in general “fear for their livelihoods.”

David: I imagine it made opinion-section editors who work 25 hours a week anxious about their livelihoods, but what makes me worry about my livelihood, and the free exchange of ideas, is THE DEATH OF THE PRESS.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 7:29 AM on July 9, 2020 [56 favorites]


I wasn’t surprised that Brooks and Atwood were on the list, but seeing Yglesias and Heer was really saddening, particularly given how clunky and poorly written the thing they co-signed is. They aren’t the only people on that list I’d have expected better from, but they stuck out.

I kept thinking, this bowl of pablum is where you want to plant your flag? Really?
posted by mhoye at 7:39 AM on July 9, 2020 [8 favorites]


And people at Vox writing to say they expect better had a bad damn day
posted by wotsac at 7:42 AM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


Mod note: Quick note here: we had a MetaTalk discussion started Tuesday about a couple prior deletions of posts on this topic. I know the letter and reactions to it are very zeitgeisty; my personal feeling is a post could wait longer, but this post having waited a couple days and being explicitly structured around reactions to the piece is better than where we started and I'm weighing leaving it in place. But I'd ask anyone not understanding why it'd be a hard topic to take a look at that MetaTalk, and that folks generally be empathatic about the fact that even discussing this letter and some of its signatories puts marginalized folks in an uncomfortable spot and avoid purely academic debate stuff about this.
posted by cortex (staff) at 7:42 AM on July 9, 2020 [31 favorites]


The letter is brilliant propaganda because it is context-free. I have seen so many people, even people I trust, be concerned about the reaction to the letter. "Why are so many people angry that these writers are pro-free speech?" And all I can say to them is, this letter doesn't take place in a vacuum. Look who signed it. I know everyone's looking at Rowling, but Martin Fucking Amis? Honestly I wasn't even aware he was still writing, but his Islamophobic turn twenty years ago should have been a huge vast red flag that something was up with this letter.

I saw a little opinion segment--well, I couldn't finish it, it was too awful--where two people whose take on the news I normally like, made fun of Emily VanDerWerff for her extremely mild criticism of Matt Yglesias signing the letter. And I wanted to tear my hair out. "She says she feels unsafe," they said, as though fear were a totally irrational response. "What's a dogwhistle?" they said, and that's the point I just had to quit listening. That's the problem with treating this as context-free. It's a volley in a culture war, and its meaning cannot be disentangled from current events.

I mean, I'm troubled as hell by some of the names on here, people I like and respect, but I think they are mostly understandable if the context was mis-explained to them. That is, I really doubt Margaret Atwood of all people was like, hell yeah, let's defend Rowling. Was Rushdie thinking yes, I need to support all the racist right-wingers who are scared of having their hatred brought to light, or was he reflecting on how his own life was affected by censorship and hatred? (And Chomsky will sign anything put in front of him, so he's not even part of the discussion.)

There is so much to talk about when the topic is how discussion should work in a world of social media. And none of it is helped by handwavy references to cancel culture and the importance of free speech, none of it is helped by avoiding a deep analysis of why it's so easy to fire someone, and so hard to restore someone's reputation online. We're in a weird cultural moment where we seem to lack every tool that could help us figure the moment out, and this letter is a fine example of a thing that looks like a tool, but is actually a sharp and dangerous weapon, slid between the ribs of vulnerable people who didn't ask to be the topic of this conversation.
posted by mittens at 7:53 AM on July 9, 2020 [106 favorites]


I'm done with Chomsky after this. If his understanding of the good gets him to sign onto this, it is not one I am interested in. Actually existing "Free speech" per se has in my lifetime only ever been a cudgel for those with power to force their words into the heads of others without consequence or friction. Power. Everything that happens in the public square is about power. Don't be dumb like me and let yourself ever get confused otherwise: if something doesn't look like a power struggle, it probably means you already lost.
posted by PMdixon at 7:54 AM on July 9, 2020 [30 favorites]




The content is a red herring, the context is everything. It's like if an open letter to abolish prisons was signed by Ghislaine Maxwell.
posted by theodolite at 7:59 AM on July 9, 2020 [80 favorites]


LOL @ Matt Welch's article on Reason snuck in there amid the others.
"If we can be negatively judgmental about speech, surely we can also be negatively judgmental about associative behavior, particularly when it's a panicked attempt to chase off a due process–hating mob." (emphasis mine)
What is it with these pearl clutchers being obsessed with imposing legal standards onto common interactions outside the courtroom? Man, you want to be "negatively judgmental" about associative behavior, go ahead and call people assholes! Why this nonsense about "due process"? Nobody took anyone to court, there is no judge, no attorneys, no threat of prison sentences, nothing. Like, I, too, used to yell at my mother that her making me do chores was LITERALLY SLAVERY and INFRINGING MY RIGHT TO LIFE LIBERTY AND PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS but by the time I was 15 or 16, I'd grown out of this need to hyperbolize my personal grievances by LARPing a courtroom drama.
posted by MiraK at 8:02 AM on July 9, 2020 [61 favorites]


So Emily VanDerWerf spoke out against this and Yglesias's involvement as he's a co-worker at Vox and today she posts:
The following is the last thing I will say on this on Twitter: These two days have been hell. Death threats, rape threats, invitations to commit suicide, constant misgendering, etc. On every platform. The only way I can avoid it is to leave the internet entirely. I can't sleep.

To my knowledge, not one signatory of the Harper's letter has said anything against this behavior, despite how obvious, extreme, and public it has been. At least two have egged it on or incited it.

They do not believe in free speech; they believe in free speech FOR THEM.
---
I have been contacted by a number of journalists who are treating this as a curious matter of Vox's office politics, perhaps because I've been subtweeted by some of my coworkers. I will speak to some of them. But this is not about my job; this is my fucking life.
posted by octothorpe at 8:03 AM on July 9, 2020 [125 favorites]


Yglesias is exactly zero surprising. His response to EVdW's being attacked with rape and murder threats was "Don't be assholes".

And like many other people I love that their anodyne (yet entirely dogwhistly) statement about how you can't say ANYTHING anymore, alas!, got published, certainly disproving their thesis.

Cancel culture is upsetting (mostly) white (mostly) men, because they now have to play by the rules other people had to play by -- if they say things other people don't like, the audience now has other choices. They love counter-speech, except when it is countering them.

Some tweets I liked included:
There are two kinds of cancel culture: the one where marginalized creators have their livelihoods destroyed over slights that may or may not exist, and the one where millionaires get mad when told to stop being bigoted then write nationally-published columns about being silenced
@Georgianzola

To which my reply is: you will never see a freer example of free speech than what you call "cancel culture". For good. For ill. This is what you want, this is what you got. Sorry it doesn't look like the picture on the box. Sorry it isn't everything you hoped for.
@AlexandraErin (part of a thread)
posted by jeather at 8:04 AM on July 9, 2020 [45 favorites]


The strange thing about the opposition to "cancel culture" whatever that is, is that the actual "cancelling" is purely speech as well.

So they are defending free speech by getting upset at other people's use of that speech to criticise some speech.

Like most attacks on the so-called "cancel culture" it is mercifully untroubled by actual examples. If they want to specifically criticise twitter pile-ons (or even the existence of twitter) then I am all for that. Most social media should just be destroyed from orbit, it's suited perfectly for everyone to share variations of exactly the same hot take and very poorly suited for actual debate (which is what they claim to value).

The reason there are no examples is that most such examples would take the form: X says something horrible -> many people are angry at X for doing that and express that opinion.

If they did give examples they would have to either align themselves with the person saying the upsetting or nasty thing or acknowledge that the only thing that happened to them as a "reprisal" was other people disagreeing with it.

Specifically, there are people who are signatories to that letter who have said things which are extremely transphobic and the "cancellation" they have received is... people on twitter saying mean things about them. What is it that they think is so wrong about that?
posted by atrazine at 8:06 AM on July 9, 2020 [41 favorites]


I was definitely disappointed by a bunch of the names on this list. Awful lot of people out there--generally very smart people!--who think that they should be able to have their thoughts heard by literally billions of people with the ease of a few keystrokes/finger taps, but who do not think, in any way, that the ability to do that should carry any sort of greater risks than being casually overheard at a society social function would.

How does the old chestnut go? "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." That's a big part of this. These writers and thinkers are all used to their voices being heard; they are not used to the voices of all the people they piss off also being heard.

Listen: if someone is seriously concerned about people getting unjustly fired merely for expressing "unpopular" opinions, the correct solution is to talk about at-will employment, and making it harder to fire people for shitty reasons. That would protect both these poor, threatened writers and a long, long list of oppressed minority folks who've had to tiptoe on eggshells around abusive bosses for ages. Of course none of these authors are actually the least bit worried about putting food on their table.

Lastly: "The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away." It's amazing to me that people are still trotting this one out in the Trump era. How have these people not learned yet that in the current media landscape, bad ideas arrive faster and spread faster than reasoned debate can possibly deal with them? Have we convinced everybody that global warming is real through exposure, argument and persuasion yet? We've had a couple of decades for that one. Debating the anti-vaxxers has eliminated the anti-vax movement by now, right? How about coronavirus, is the effort to convince people to wear masks through exposure, argument and persuasion going well?

Here's what works: deplatforming the trolls. Every big public debate Milo ever engaged in made him more famous and financially better off, even the ones where he got soundly thrashed. What made him broke? Deplatforming.
posted by mstokes650 at 8:08 AM on July 9, 2020 [111 favorites]


The failure of pious appeals to Free Speech absolutism to serve anything but the status quo, the failure of Free Speech ideals to admit that it’s only Free for Some, and the hand wringing of declining intellectuals that they aren’t given deference is just another proof about what Liberalism can’t do. Bonus: we should have learned this lesson 100 years ago, but no.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:08 AM on July 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


So Emily VanDerWerf spoke out against this and Yglesias's involvement as he's a co-worker at Vox and today she posts:

Any trans person living their life in public is braver than every person who signed this letter. Yes, I'm counting Rushdie in there.
posted by Etrigan at 8:12 AM on July 9, 2020 [51 favorites]


you will never see a freer example of free speech than what you call "cancel culture".


THAT.

It strikes me that several of the people who signed this in the guise of "free speech" have mistaken "free" speech for UNCRITICIZED speech. It's like that XKCD strip where he argues that people who say "you can't say that here" aren't taking away your free speech - they're just telling you that you're an asshole and showing you to the door.

There is a part of me that sometimes thinks that "cancel culture" gets a tiny bit carried away, but that has nothing to do with "Free speech"; it's more of a function of over-zealousness on the part of some participants. And that is a human nature issue as opposed to a free-speech issue. It's also one I don't know if there is a solution for, it just kind of is.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:12 AM on July 9, 2020 [37 favorites]


Lastly: "The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away." It's amazing to me that people are still trotting this one out in the Trump era.

Because unfortunately, a half-century plus of uncritical hagiography doesn't just vanish overnight. We thoroughly thought the lie that" the answer to bad speech is more/better speech", and it will need to be thoroughly untaught.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:17 AM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


Why this nonsense about "due process"?

I am coming to decide that for a large fraction of white men especially, litigation occupies the moral position of trial by durance. So basically they're complaining that they don't have the opportunity to be vindicated by God in front of everyone Forever And Ever.
posted by PMdixon at 8:17 AM on July 9, 2020 [16 favorites]


Y'all who look like white men, if you have the spoons and stones, please use them to exercise your right to free speech, whatever that looks like in your country, to distract assholes from exercising their right to asshole speech on oppressed peoples (including store staff, they're oppressed when they're employees no matter what) and pull the hate, anger and rage your way so it can be defused. PS I recommend earplugs because shouting in your face is unpleasant.

If you're not able, for whatever reason, cool. We can all serve justice in our own best ways.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:21 AM on July 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


I'm done with Chomsky after this. If his understanding of the good gets him to sign onto this, it is not one I am interested in.

I don't know much about Chomsky, so this isn't a particular comment about him, but I'm inclined to go a little easier on some signatories - especially those who are older, out of touch, not very online, and/or had other legitimate reasons not to be on high alert for context before signing this. Did Chomsky has kept abreast of what JKR has been saying on Twitter, for example? Is he up to speed on the post-2000s culture wars which have essentially redefined "BUT MUH FREE SPEECH" as a reactionary neo-Nazi rallying cry?

These folks SHOULD have known better. People SHOULD smell shenanigans whenever they see bombastic but studiously vague paragraphs that espouse high ideals on the surface - they SHOULD know these tend to take on new meanings depending on context. It reminds me of when P. G. Wodehouse was hoodwinked into seemingly sympathizing with Nazis: he agreed to do a comedy radio show on Nazi airwaves while he was being held prisoner by them. To be sure, he did real damage, and however "innocent" his error was, it had a real cost for the Allied cause. He paid a steep price in lost reputation and was no longer received in polite company for many years after. That was perfectly appropriate.

But he also wasn't malicious. He wasn't an actual Nazi sympathizer. That counts for something, imo, and it's the reason he was eventually forgiven when he made his apologies. It's the reason why I still read his books and recommend them to everyone and consider myself a fan.

I hope more of the "clueless" folks who signed the statement without quite understanding what they were doing will come out over the next few days and make their apologies. And if they do, I hope we can accept that apology, since they were acting out of ignorance and not malice.
posted by MiraK at 8:25 AM on July 9, 2020 [20 favorites]


Rebecca Solnit's name isn't on there *whew*

She was one of the last reasons I kept my subscription to Harper's. Then her name started appearing less often, the writing in general didn't hold my interest, and, oh yeah, the Hockenberry thing sure didn't help.

I let said subscription lapse. I had been a subscriber for at least ten years by that point. Looks like they're still unable to read the room when it comes to certain things, and as a result, I still won't be resubbing.
posted by May Kasahara at 8:25 AM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


The modern day threat to freedom of speech is not censorship, it's something more akin to the DDOS attack - filling up people's bandwidth with misinformation and contextless, contentless drivel that no meaningful political discourse can take place.

Pieces like this, not only are wrongheaded, they are themselves an attack on free speech.

The point of free speech is to prevent a central authority from deciding what people should believe is good and what counts as truth. It is not to valorize lies or evil nonsense. You can say anything - but that's not because saying anything is a good in and of itself, it's so that oppressive governments find it harder to stop the spread of good ideas that may be a threat to them.

Speech has consequences, otherwise it wouldn't be worth protecting. As long as those consequences are limited to other individuals exercising their free speech and freedom of association, it is not censorship, it is freedom. Trying to avoid counterarguments and public disapproval by hiding behind "free speech" without context or content like some sort of body shield is not only defeating the point of free speech, but injuring it at the same time.
posted by Zalzidrax at 8:29 AM on July 9, 2020 [29 favorites]


And if they do, I hope we can accept that apology, since they were acting out of ignorance and not malice.

Oh for sure. I singled out Chomsky because I both expect that you are correct about how his signature got on there and because given his track record on apologizing I do not expect him to admit the fuck up - I expect him to choose to make the negligence deliberate. You are correct that it would do me better to wait and see.
posted by PMdixon at 8:30 AM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


Has anyone see any other apologies besides Boylan's? I live for stuff like that.
@GreenidgeKerri's name was on the Harper's letter. She said she didn't want to be on it and yesterday had it taken off.

For that, she's now faced enough harassment from the "free speech" crowd for it that she's had to turn her Twitter profile private.
That right there is the tell that this isn't actually about free speech, it's un ugly combo of grift and codifying the freedom of the powerful to bully without consequence or accountability. I also don't think it's a coincidence that the timing of the letter's release was at the height of the pushback against Rowling; nor that it's an accident that the harassment kicked off by Mounk, Gladwell, Singal et al (on top of Rowling's ongoing campaigns) is aimed largely at trans critics.
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man at 8:30 AM on July 9, 2020 [39 favorites]


I do think it's possible that some of the signatories, like Boylan, did not see the dogwhistles or the context -- I think some people's names were also added without approval [on preview, mentioned above] -- so I am willing to see people who either apologise for not knowing what they were signing or who say that they never said they wanted in on the letter.
posted by jeather at 8:32 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

This is a using a naive reading of J.S Mill's On Liberty chapter 4 as a vague appeal to the authority of philosophy. Mill himself grants "perfect freedom, legal and social" for speech that "affects the interests of no persons besides himself." However, Mill also thinks that "an offence against the rights of others" belongs in a different category, for "the evil consequences of his acts do not then fall on himself, but on others; and society, as the protector of all its members, must retaliate on him...and must take care that it be sufficiently severe."
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:32 AM on July 9, 2020 [25 favorites]


Why this nonsense about "due process"?
It's forensic!

The best thing about this is the "mob" couldn't give less of a fuck what people like Malcolm fucking Gladwell thinks about them.

Did they think the revolution was just gonna stop at the billionaires?
Oh right, melts. Yeah, that's exactly what they thought.
posted by fullerine at 8:34 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


The strange thing about the opposition to "cancel culture" whatever that is, is that the actual "cancelling" is purely speech as well.

A lot of people did cancel Harper's in 2018 after they outed the maker of the #MeToo list. And with this idiotic gambit Harper's assures everyone who cancelled then that they were right to cancel.

Harper's no doubt concealed the Caitlin Flanaganacity of this latest stinker from the signatories the better to sucker more people into signing it, because exactly: I'm inclined to go a little easier on some signatories - especially those who are older, out of touch, not very online, and/or had other legitimate reasons not to be on high alert for context before signing this.

Deceitful scammy bullshit seems to be Harper's' MO.

So now the signatories who didn't realize what they were signing on to are screwed and will be angry at Harper's and a whole bunch of people who didn't track the 2018 Harper's shitshow and cancel their subscriptions because of that will now cancel their subscriptions because of this. They appear to be deliberately trying to piss off their producers and consumers alike. Who's in charge over there and what do they think they're doing? Are they trying to burn it all down and become longform InfoWars?
posted by Don Pepino at 8:35 AM on July 9, 2020 [12 favorites]


There is a part of me that sometimes thinks that "cancel culture" gets a tiny bit carried away, but that has nothing to do with "Free speech"; it's more of a function of over-zealousness on the part of some participants. And that is a human nature issue as opposed to a free-speech issue. It's also one I don't know if there is a solution for, it just kind of is.

my take is that we've always had "cancel culture" in us. It's a means for those who have comparatively less power to use strength-in-numbers to take on those who have more power. What's changed over the past couple of decades is that social media etc has magnified things -- so the sting this tool can deliver is sharper. And people getting stung, particularly people who are used to more or less getting away with shit -- well that raises the temperature in a room big time, temperamentally speaking.
posted by philip-random at 8:35 AM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


Layoffs cancel.

Private-equity media ownership cancels.

Unpaid internships cancel.

Educational disparity cancels.

Publishing's insularity cancels.

Agent gatekeeping cancels.

Lack of connections cancels.

Mysterious hiring processes cancel.

Race and gender privilege cancel.


On Twitter, the writer Anand Giridharadas has been making a good point about how we're not even talking about the "cancel culture" that prevents marginalized voices from even getting a platform from which to be "cancelled." The letter itself is evidence for how privileged the voices of the signatories even are.
posted by fryman at 8:42 AM on July 9, 2020 [48 favorites]


So they're really into "all speech is good speech" bucket.

Oh yeah hardcore. It's been pseudo intellectualist trash for a while. I remember somewhere in the early Bush II era they had this fawning piece on creationism.
posted by PMdixon at 8:43 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


This reminds me of the Robin Williams joke that “Cocaine is God's way of telling you you’re making too much money.”

If you have a famous name to throw around, and you’re using it to deplore cancel culture instead of the million other, more pressing problems in this world, you have more power than you deserve.
posted by sallybrown at 8:53 AM on July 9, 2020 [36 favorites]


There is a part of me that sometimes thinks that "cancel culture" gets a tiny bit carried away, but that has nothing to do with "Free speech"; it's more of a function of over-zealousness on the part of some participants. And that is a human nature issue as opposed to a free-speech issue.

Right. Mostly my problem with friends who get carried away is that they become a bit obnoxious for the duration of it. Even calling it "obnoxious" is probably uncharitable on my part, because their constant raging comes directly from their own hurt and trauma, and if I were a better person, I would be able to extend loving kindness and gentle support to them even during their obnoxious phase, but oh well. Perhaps I see too much of my own obnoxious youthful self in them to be able to tolerate their phase with generosity. So I tend to wait it out, engage minimally, and then reconnect later, when they either start to return to their normal selves or else transform their raw anger into some creative effort or meaningful activism. The latter set are people I admire beyond words, people I seek to emulate.

The middle parts are tough, though. I worry about my friends burning bridges and needlessly losing people who love them imperfectly just because they're carried away by the purist-rage current. I promise myself I won't ever write people off just because they went through an obnoxious ragey phase, even if they lashed out at me in unfair ways.

To take THIS ^^ - a tragedy of real trauma endangering the human connectedness of those who are already hurt - and claim that actually, the tragedy is that all these famous (mainly) white (mainly) male artists and writers and intellectuals are being ... gaspshockhorror ... criticized by meanies? And that this obviously means THE FIRST AMENDMENT HAS BEEN THREATENED ... Phew!
posted by MiraK at 8:55 AM on July 9, 2020 [21 favorites]


two from Julia Serrano[twitter], written YEARS AGO and referenced recently:
Free Speech and the Paradox of Tolerance
Hate speech, and other speech acts designed to harass and intimidate (rather than merely express criticism or dissent), are routinely used to thwart other people’s freedom of expression. Free speech absolutists tend not to consider or fully appreciate this, probably because most of them have never felt silenced by pervasive or systemic hatred and intolerance before. Others of us, however, have experienced this first hand.
Refusing to Tolerate Intolerance
There is no such thing as “free speech”
One of the most lucid critiques of free speech absolutism can be found in Stanley Fish’s 1994 book There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech: And It’s a Good Thing, Too. The thrust of his argument (laid out in chapters 8 and 9, and summarized in this interview) is two-fold.
First, Fish shows that, despite it being frequently referenced as an aphorism or shibboleth, none of us actually believes in comprehensive “free speech,” as there will always be some expressions of speech that we (as individuals, or as a society) refuse to tolerate. I have come to think of this phenomenon as constitutive intolerance, because it is always occurring (often invisibly) in the background, and it essentially gives shape to our understanding of what constitutes or counts as “free speech” (i.e., speech that we are willing to tolerate). As Fish puts it in the aforementioned interview: “free speech is what’s left over when you have determined which forms of speech cannot be permitted to flourish. The ‘free speech zone’ emerges against the background of what has been excluded.”
Fish provides examples of prominent free speech absolutists such as John Milton (who believed that we should not extend free expression to Catholics) and Nat Hentoff (who felt similarly about anti-Semitic speech) to illustrate the ubiquity of this constitutive intolerance. Fish goes on to say: “everyone has such a trigger point, which is either acknowledged at the beginning or emerges in a moment of crisis.”
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:56 AM on July 9, 2020 [25 favorites]


A demonstration of how predictable this all is, Osita Nwanevu wrote an excellent pre-rebuttal three days ago, before this letter even came out, responding to a prior "free speech" dustup in the (mostly NY media) set: The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism
When a speaker is denied or when staffers at a publication argue that something should not have been published, the rights of the parties in question haven’t been violated in any way. But what we tend to hear in these and similar situations are criticisms that are at odds with the principle that groups in liberal society have the general right to commit themselves to values which many might disagree with and make decisions on that basis. There’s nothing unreasonable about criticizing the substance of such decisions and the values that produce them. But accusations of “illiberalism” in these cases carry the implication that nonstate institutions under liberalism have an obligation of some sort to be maximally permissive of opposing ideas⁠—or at least maximally permissive of the kinds of ideas critics of progressive identity politics consider important. In fact, they do not.

Associative freedom is no less vital to liberalism than the other freedoms, and is actually integral to their functioning. There isn’t a right explicitly enumerated in the First Amendment that isn’t implicitly dependent on or augmented by similarly minded individuals having the right to come together. Most people worship with others; an assembly or petition of one isn’t worth much; the institutions of the press are, again, associations; and individual speech is functionally inert unless some group chooses to offer a venue or a platform. And political speech is, in the first place, generally aimed at stirring some group or constituency to contemplation or action.
Nwanevu references the (influential, to a certain set) Tyler Cowen: [twitter] @OsitaNwanevu 10:04 AM · Jul 8, 2020
I appreciate Cowen's candor in saying explicitly what I've argued this is about. This issue isn't the principle of constraining discourse even though people pretend so. It's the belief that progressives specifically should be unable to constrain discourse.
https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/07/the-harpers-free-speech-letter-and-controversy.html
*******
[Cowen:] Only a very small number of individuals in the world even had the option of signing, and it seems the particular individuals chosen were selected with an eye toward their public and intellectual palatability. Do you really think they would have invited [fill in the blank with name of “evil” person of your choice] to sign? Or how about such a letter signed only by white males? More prosaically, how about a few vocal Trump supporters or members of the IDW?

You can’t expect readers to scroll through thousands of names, but of course with internet technology you could have a linked pdf with a second tier of signers, more numerous and also more truly intellectually diverse. The de facto message seems to be: “free speech is too important a cause to let just anybody sign onto.”

Again, what they did is fine! I work with voluntary institutions all the time, and am quite familiar with “how things have to go.”

But again, let’s be honest. To produce a paean to free speech, acceptable to Harper’s and worthy of receiving a non-condemnatory article in The New York Times, the organizers had to “restrict free speech” in a manner not altogether different than what they are objecting to.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:11 AM on July 9, 2020 [25 favorites]


I recently saw someone point out that you rarely see complaints about "cancel culture" from people like sportswriters because they are well-acquainted with ... vigorous feedback from their audience in a way that many other writers are not.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:16 AM on July 9, 2020 [20 favorites]


Excusing any of these people with the excuse of "oh, they didn't know what they were signing!" totally clangs my irony meter. These are supposed to be the tallest foreheads in the room, the great arbiters of reason, the drivers and defenders of current Western culture. These intellectual titans are supposed to be able to read and deconstruct a 5000-word treatise in the time that it takes a mental microbe like me to type "intellectual titans." Surely their first instinct before signing is to ask whether the letter agrees with their sterling principles and meets with their own formidable academic rigour, not ask "well, who else is on there?" like a status-conscious teenager anxious about who's going to a Friday night party.
posted by hangashore at 9:16 AM on July 9, 2020 [30 favorites]


I imagine a non-zero number of signers on that letter patting themselves on the back for an act of moral jujitsu that at long last made it OK to take the Roman Polanski and Woody Allen DVDs out of the porn cabinet in their screening room.
posted by bgribble at 9:19 AM on July 9, 2020 [7 favorites]


Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty. Tolerance is a social norm because it allows different people to live side-by-side without being at each other’s throats. It means that we accept that people may be different from us, in their customs, in their behavior, in their dress, in their sex lives, and that if this doesn’t directly affect our lives, it is none of our business. But the model of a peace treaty differs from the model of a moral precept in one simple way: the protection of a peace treaty only extends to those willing to abide by its terms. It is an agreement to live in peace, not an agreement to be peaceful no matter the conduct of others. A peace treaty is not a suicide pact.”
We have decided to withdraw tolerance from the likes JK Rowling who use their wealth and platform to do real harm in the real world with their self-styled “Free Speech”.

Those who will not live in peace do not benefit from the peace treaty.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:29 AM on July 9, 2020 [48 favorites]


There are countless injustices in this non-utopian world. Given the propensity of the human mind to be hyper-sensitive to language, and given the recent pendulum swing towards greater tolerance (sorry for that anodyne word), this sort of dust-up was inevitable. Recently there have been countless indignant complaints on all sides about names, labels, gender--and especially word choice.

The fact that there are so many Famous Wordsmiths signing this thing accounts for its status as a Thing, of course. But I am way more angry about income inequity, racism, militarism, and a dozen other things than who does or does not get offended about which phrase, words, or idea.
posted by kozad at 9:34 AM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


The corollary to "the ends don't justify the means" is that if you know someone's ends you already know everything you need to know about how to deal with them; whether they're acting nice or being nasty, Nazis and other fascists need to be removed from civilization as soon as they're discovered. It's a rewording of the paradox of tolerance: we can tolerate anything except those who are not tolerant. Which is where you haul out the slippery slope fallacy and laugh as they whine about "but you're being intolerant" as you're showing them the door.
posted by seanmpuckett at 9:35 AM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

In addition to every other criticism of this statement, I've always been struck by the vaugely agressive construction here. I doubt that anyone ever "defeats" bad ideas—in an intellectual sense, anyway; at best you persuade people of good ones. It's a fantasy on the level of "truth is always arrived at by pure, intellectual debate." And it's often, especially in the internet age, a fantasy beloved by bullies.

Rebecca Solnit's name isn't on there *whew* She was one of the last reasons I kept my subscription to Harper's.

It's hard to make a claim about someone else's perspicacity, but part of me feels like Solnit has enough experience in all the dubious ways critics, especially those on societal margins, can be silenced to be too enamored of easy sloganeering over "free speech."

Btw, I read Recollections of My Nonexistence over the quarantine and I thought it was remarkably good. Highly recommended.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:35 AM on July 9, 2020 [7 favorites]


So they're really into "all speech is good speech" bucket.
Right, and so is The Atlantic and so has been The New Yorker, but of late Harper's has been in an "outing and betraying and scamming people is fine" bucket. If they in fact signed people's names to that letter without the people's knowledge or if they bowdlerized the signatories list to conceal the actual message of the letter, then that piece of scamtastic bullshit is, like their giving Katie Roiphe a megaphone to out Moira Donegan, beyond the pale. Some people need to lawyer up. Harper's needs to get cancelled for real.
posted by Don Pepino at 9:37 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


So they acknowledge the demands for racial and social justice, and then attack the tone of those demands as insufficiently considerate of free speech? What's the fallacy where you ignore the argument and attack the tone? I feel like anyone who has met someone on a debate team knows it.
posted by surlyben at 9:39 AM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


The same people who taught me the value of free speech also taught me the value of self-editing. Like most of you, I imagine, I have controversial thoughts. I just... don't publish them (mostly). I was, of course, also taught to treat people with respect, which, if we get down to it, is really what cancel culture seems to be asking for. Does it sometimes go too far? Maybe; as another commenter noted, that's human nature. But it seems disingenuous to me to talk about overreaches of cancel culture without talking about the overreaches of free speech, which are many. I guess I just don't believe that free speech is the inherent good that this letter seems to believe.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:40 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


Margaret Atwood at least doesn't want people to think her signature on this signifies an endorsement of Rowling's transphobic rhetoric and has been saying good stuff about gender as a spectrum and beating up on TERFs enthusiastically on twitter.

Today, she's been focusing more on #BlackBotanistsWeek.
posted by hydropsyche at 9:41 AM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


Rebecca Solnit brought together these tweets on her Facebook page:

Re: the Harper's letter:
Robert Reich
@RBReich
I declined to sign the Harper's letter because Trumpism, racism, xenophobia, and sexism have had such free rein and baleful influence in recent years that we should honor and respect the expressions of anger and heartache finally being heard.
Mona Eltahawy
@monaeltahawy
·
23h
The letter in Harper’s mentions alarm over editors getting fired. Did it include, I wonder, an editor fired from Harper’s itself because he opposed publishing Katie Roiphe’s anti #MeToo article. Or is it alarm just for Jim Bennet and Ian Buruma (signatory)
Hakeem Jefferson
@hakeemjefferson
·
16h
Re
@Harpers
letter: one of the most successful campaigns in recent memory has been convincing folks that the greatest threat to freedom is the possibility of being shamed on Twitter or being in a college classroom where prof. at the front of the room doesn’t share your worldview.
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N. K. Jemisin
@nkjemisin
·
10h
Just catching up with this Harpers nonsense. I see why they didn't name names -- because their argument only works in abstract. The moment you cite specifics, you realize they're supporting mass dehumanization, historical revisionism, and any number of fascist principles.
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Kaitlyn Greenidge
@surlybassey
·
17h
That
@Harpers
letter came to me last week and I was so mad about it when I read it and have been angry about it for days. My sister does not condone it either and does not agree with its contents. This is a mess.
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Benjamin Park
@BenjaminEPark
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18h
My immediate reaction to the Harper's letter was remembering all those studies about how privileged voices always overestimate the extent to which marginalized voices dominate any particular conversation.
posted by doctornemo at 9:43 AM on July 9, 2020 [38 favorites]




I wouldn't be surprised if it crossed Chomsky's mind when he signed this that people would call for cancelling him, and he found this amusing.
posted by polymodus at 9:45 AM on July 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


Solnit also recommended this thread.
posted by doctornemo at 9:47 AM on July 9, 2020 [12 favorites]


What has struck me about this as well as so, so many arguments I've read lately about so-called cancel culture is that the central complaint, when all the nonsense is stripped away, is that the horrible thing these people are against is they are simply being asked to consider their words have meaning beyond the extent of their pens or fingertips, that they might have to actually consider what they say carries consequences rather than just being airy abstractions. It's like they've come to think the sole reason to write or speak is only to justify their desire in continuing to do so, and in the specific case of the Harpers signees, at considerable recompense in fame and fortune to the exclusion of others.
posted by gusottertrout at 9:50 AM on July 9, 2020 [15 favorites]


Yeah, the Contrapoints video on canceling should be required viewing.
posted by all about eevee at 9:57 AM on July 9, 2020 [9 favorites]


Ken "Popehat" White's thread

And also,
“The problem of the preferred first speaker” is the tendency to impose norms of civility, openness, productiveness, and dialogue-encouraging on a RESPONSE to expression that we do not impose on the expression itself.
This is 100% correct. Someone says "Black lives don't matter", the second person says "What the fuck is wrong with you?" and the first person comes back with "Free speech! Why are you censoring me?"

Nobody ever looks at the inherent harm in a lot of these ideas, merely the response.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 9:58 AM on July 9, 2020 [24 favorites]


It's like the ghost of Christopher Hitchens has decided to come back and infect the public discourse once again.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 10:00 AM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


Why this nonsense about "due process"?

Due process is a positional good. When used by the weak to force fairness on the powerful it is good. But, as in this case, it can also be a tool of oppression by forcing those without power to walk a complicated line of procedure (preferably procedure that can't/won't happen even if initiated; like who is going to take JKR to court for being a TERF and one what legal basis?). It's the same sort of procedural trick as putting planning documents in a locked filing cabinet located in an unlit basement lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”.

Put a standard of due process on something and that something will go away in 99.9% of cases strictly because no one can invest the time or money that would take.

Also, and this is related to the contextness of the letter in question, note how people clamoring for due process rarely lay out what that process is? It is always a nebulous hand wave to due process without any critique of what steps were skipped. It's the first step in no true scotmaning the discussion.
posted by Mitheral at 10:00 AM on July 9, 2020 [6 favorites]


Brooks more or less called BLM a quasi religious cult in the NYT. With the pushback he got no wonder he's involved in this letter business. Its the end of the thoughtleadership Ponzi scheme imo.
posted by infini at 10:08 AM on July 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


If someone’s “older“ and “out of touch” enough to not be very online or fully understand the context of the letter they signed, do they have enough of an understanding of cancel culture as it exists today to form an opinion worth holding in high regard?
posted by Selena777 at 10:09 AM on July 9, 2020 [7 favorites]


People always complain about "due process" at the wrong time, and/or forget that "due process" means a trial.

In the social realm, people complain about being accused of something without "due process", even though a trial starts with an accusation or allegation of wrongdoing.

I've seen cops also complain about being denied "due process" when people accuse them of being violent, and they explicitly get to avoid going on trial!

I guarantee you the folks who complain about "due process" most certainly wouldn't like the full laying out of the facts in a rigorous way!
posted by explosion at 10:11 AM on July 9, 2020 [7 favorites]


Chomsky's public position for several decades has been that free speech without professional consequences is an essential good, no matter how abhorrent the speech in question. He wasn't bamboozled into signing this letter, or signing by rote, or being out of it, or whatever. I'm never been even remotely enthused by Chomsky, but given that he articulated his position on free speech in the context of a pretty major controversy (his support for the French Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson), I would have thought it was common knowledge among his fans...?
posted by thomas j wise at 10:20 AM on July 9, 2020 [33 favorites]


the horrible thing these people are against is they are simply being asked to consider their words have meaning beyond the extent of their pens or fingertips, that they might have to actually consider what they say carries consequences rather than just being airy abstractions

It's astonishingly naive to think that the signatories of that letter are ignorant of the consequences of their output when one of the most prominent of those is actively seeking to influence policy decisions around the legal recognition of trans and non-binary identities. The hatred these people hold is given leverage by the privileged platforms they occupy and that is no accident.
posted by xchmp at 10:23 AM on July 9, 2020 [8 favorites]


This gentleman has a nice little thread about why you have to chase out Nazis from the beginning, even if they're nice and polite and reasonable, because otherwise you wind up with a bunch of Nazis everywhere.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:30 AM on July 9, 2020 [58 favorites]




This gentleman has a nice little thread about why you have to chase out Nazis from the beginning, even if they're nice and polite and reasonable, because otherwise you wind up with a bunch of Nazis everywhere.

The bartender is entirely correct. One thing that nazis, fascists, or whatever dehumanizing bunch of chucklefucks who are the AuthRight de jour, is that they will always, always, ALWAYS co-opt the rules of the order of the day in order to further their power grabs.

Liberals in power? MUH FREEZE PEACH! Communists in power? OUR UNITY! Progressives in power? MUH TOLERANT LEFT!

They will hold and exploit any value that any group holds in order to just grab power. Just long enough so that they can strip everything from everyone and rule over them.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 10:54 AM on July 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


A career in a tweet.
Malcolm Gladwell @Gladwell
I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter.
6:18 AM · Jul 8, 2020·Twitter for iPhone
4.9K Retweets and comments 27.7K Likes
posted by Ahmad Khani at 11:17 AM on July 9, 2020 [18 favorites]


Hey now, it took him 10,000 hours to be that much of stupid contrarian.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 11:24 AM on July 9, 2020 [74 favorites]


It's astonishingly naive to think that the signatories of that letter are ignorant of the consequences of their output when one of the most prominent of those is actively seeking to influence policy...

Well, some of the signatories are asserting that they didn't know everyone else who was signing it when they agreed. The organizers were either a) very careless or b) less than honest. Which, I guess makes the signatories in turn careless, naive, or malign.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:25 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


here's a post by Aaron Huertas that Julia Serano linked "How Did the Organizers of the Harper’s Letter Mislead Some of the Signers? (It’s About Ethics in Open Letters)" that goes into some details about the process (or lack thereof).
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:29 AM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


That Gladwell tweet was a sarcastic retelling of Jennifer Finney Boylan's tweet disavowing her signature.

I don't doubt he's that much of a contrarian, but let's not take things out of context.
posted by cooker girl at 11:30 AM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


I saw a few responses along the lines of "why are so many of these people who think free speech is under attack the very people whose opinions I cannot avoid?" and that rang true. JKR and David Brooks immediately came to mind. I have never wanted to hear from them or sought them out and yet somehow, they have a way of taking over my twitter feed with their regularly generated garbage.
posted by Emmy Rae at 11:35 AM on July 9, 2020 [14 favorites]


I would love some enterprising reporter to ask each of the signatories which 'troubling examples' they were thinking of, if any, when they agreed to sign the letter.
posted by PhineasGage at 11:35 AM on July 9, 2020 [18 favorites]


For those who don't follow the ins and outs of Canadian literature, Margaret Atwood infamously came to the defense of a novelist fired from the country's most prestigious creative writing program for sexual harassment ("a record of misconduct"). This is a pretty good summary. Her various arguments there don't feel very far from this letter, and her signature showing up here is not a surprise.
posted by spindle at 11:40 AM on July 9, 2020 [14 favorites]


Well, some of the signatories are asserting that they didn't know everyone else who was signing it when they agreed.

Wait, so they're saying the decision to sign a set of beliefs would depend on who else was signing and not the beliefs themselves? Well, that's an interesting moral stance to take I guess. Clearly deeply held convictions...
posted by gusottertrout at 11:44 AM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


From the Huertas piece linked above:

It seems silly to have to establish this, but who signs onto a letter—especially on a policy or political topic—is quite important for interpreting that letter.

That’s because on contentious issues, words themselves are in contention and people use them differently. There are obvious examples of framing choices, such as liberals referring to inheritance taxes while conservatives call them death taxes. But individual terms can also be contested. (Linguists call these “floating signifiers.”)

posted by PMdixon at 11:46 AM on July 9, 2020 [9 favorites]


I think that is a possible reading of it, but not how I read it to me.

I mean, he re-tweeted her exact statement below his tweet? I can't believe I'm defending Gladwell.
posted by cooker girl at 11:47 AM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


It seems silly to have to establish this, but who signs onto a letter—especially on a policy or political topic—is quite important for interpreting that letter.

Ah yes, important people problems. Well then I guess I will be waiting on pins and needles for all those really good alternative interpretations of the words those poor fooled signees thought they were agreeing to before being so horribly misled.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:57 AM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


Wait, so they're saying the decision to sign a set of beliefs would depend on who else was signing and not the beliefs themselves? Well, that's an interesting moral stance to take I guess. Clearly deeply held convictions...

I read this as "I read it and didn't see the dogwhistles, but now that I see all the signatories I understand what I missed when I first read it". I'm not saying it's a great look, and I think it's not true for most of the signatories, but I dont think it's impossible.
posted by jeather at 11:59 AM on July 9, 2020 [17 favorites]


It's like I might sign a bland and non-specific letter on academic freedom signed by faculty at my university and refuse if it was signed by Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos. The signatures are part of the text and reveal its intent.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:05 PM on July 9, 2020 [50 favorites]


I'm sorry PMdixon, I shouldn't have been sarcastic. That attitude, to me, just reaffirms one of the main problem with the letter, leveraging celebrity over words, trying to make an appeal as the voices of authority rather than thinking through the meaning, or even the possible alternative meanings, of what was being said.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:12 PM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


This is especially galling from Rowling considering that she keeps propping up her transphobic BS on Twitter by claiming that soooo many of even her LGBQ friends/colleagues agree with her. So she wants to claim being silenced and villainized but also, tons of people think she's right!
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:17 PM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


It's quite telling that rich (mostly) white (mostly) men with platforms speak of an 'attack on free speech' because marginalized non-platformed groups exercise their own free speech.
posted by signal at 12:18 PM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


And needless to say yes, this letter fails every Rhetoric or Composition 101 rubric for "citations needed".
posted by nakedmolerats at 12:19 PM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


This is especially galling from Rowling considering that she keeps propping up her transphobic BS on Twitter...

It's almost like she hasn't been "silenced" at all!
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:20 PM on July 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


That Gladwell tweet was a sarcastic retelling of Jennifer Finney Boylan's tweet disavowing her signature.

He was refuting her, not "retelling". His entire point -- which was 100% sincere, and not at all "sarcastic" -- was that she is wrong for assigning meaning to the other signers.

I find that to be a deeply stupid stance, because if the signers don't matter, then what is the point of affixing their names to the letter? It's another instance of their complaint: that people must treat them as Important Persons and therefore read their Defense Of Free Speech while simultaneously not holding them (a few of them in particular) responsible for even the possibility that their High-Minded Words could result in people being hurt.
posted by Etrigan at 12:23 PM on July 9, 2020 [16 favorites]


I've never been asked to sign an open letter, but I think if I were, who else is signing it would be very important information. Like, I'd want to see more than 5 or 6 other signatories' names before I gave final consent. If I didn't, and ended up on a list of folks like Rowling and Brooks, well, then it looks like I belong on the idiot list with these other idiots after all.
posted by axiom at 12:28 PM on July 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


Steven Salaita, invoked in the discussion around this letter, responds.
posted by doctornemo at 12:37 PM on July 9, 2020 [8 favorites]


Echoing again that the identity of the signatories is important, because, frankly, the letter itself barely says anything.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:39 PM on July 9, 2020 [9 favorites]


I'm shocked that Richard Dawkins and other New Atheism big names didn't sign this. Nobody invited Mr. "Dear Muslima" to the party? It wasn't THAT long ago that Dawkins could be relied upon to tweet about being silenced by the evil SJWs twice a week like clockwork.

Time marches on and foists irrelevance upon some rather deserving people! Alas that Steven Pinker was spared that fate, gosh, it's been years since I heard him embarrass himself.

Whose absences surprised you all, MeFi? And whose presence on the list of signatories was surprising?
posted by MiraK at 12:41 PM on July 9, 2020 [9 favorites]


that rich (mostly) white (mostly) men with platforms speak of an 'attack on free speech'

Yeah, Privilege gets challenged when using another's criteria, which they don't understand, as thier own.
posted by clavdivs at 12:48 PM on July 9, 2020


Harper's seems like a kind of lefty mag, but they have always had a sort of reactionary streak, too....remember that screed against contemporary fiction they ran about 20 years ago? And the self-satisfied tone of Lapham's editorials, which kind of increasingly revelled in this tone of being an intellectual sage gliding above the debasement of contemporary culture, kind of became off-putting to me. I could see that sort of thing appealing to your Brooksian, Ivy League, Burke-worshipping conservative. So this contrarian performance does not seem really too out of character for them, I guess.
posted by thelonius at 12:48 PM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


Whose absences surprised you all, MeFi?

Jordan Peterson
Camille Paglia
+numerous other respectable influential big-media Canadian gasbags (Rex Murphy, Conrad Black, Margaret Wente...) since the only fellow citizens I recognized were Atwood, David "Axis of Evil" Frum, and Michael "Mitt Romney, but less charismatic and more socially awkward" Ignatieff
posted by hangashore at 12:49 PM on July 9, 2020 [8 favorites]


surprise face for me is Chomsky. like a he signed it with a wooden icepick dipped in Quicksilver. Glad this was posted.
posted by clavdivs at 12:53 PM on July 9, 2020


He was refuting her, not "retelling". His entire point -- which was 100% sincere, and not at all "sarcastic" -- was that she is wrong for assigning meaning to the other signers.

Right, right, right. I wrote that comment before a much-needed nap and I definitely agree that I used the wrong words. Seemed right in my brain at the time (he was being a dick about it! sarcasm!) but I definitely agree that he refuting her assertion of the meaning of the other signers.
posted by cooker girl at 12:54 PM on July 9, 2020


Whose absences surprised you all, MeFi?

Bret Stephens. Very curious, considering three (by my count-- maybe more) NYT oped columnists signed the letter. But what about their colleague who has written the most on this topic? Surely they didn't intentionally leave him out because he would be a source of embarassment, given that he's been known to try to get writers fired when they say things he doesn't like. I'm sure someone just forgot to forward an email at one point.
posted by mcmile at 12:55 PM on July 9, 2020 [7 favorites]


I've never been asked to sign an open letter, but I think if I were, who else is signing it would be very important information.

I guess that's the difference. I don't tend to put myself in the place of the signees as much as I think of the effect of what they sign might have on nobodies like me and the people I know.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:08 PM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


Adam Rapoport is missing.
posted by all about eevee at 1:14 PM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


Alan Dershowitz?
posted by all about eevee at 1:15 PM on July 9, 2020


Whose absences surprised you all, MeFi?

Jordan Peterson


That doesn't surprise me at all. The signatories were carefully selected to be plausible. I'd imagine not a single one of the people on that list would be so gauche as to sign the same document as Peterson. But Atwood? Well, surely one can sign the same open letter as Margaret Atwood, right?

Ditto Dershowitz (now completely toxic).
posted by atrazine at 1:25 PM on July 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


I don't know, plenty of the people who signed were already known toxic terrible people.
posted by all about eevee at 1:27 PM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


Brooks more or less called BLM a quasi religious cult in the NYT.

Proving once again that this notorious public scold wouldn't know "morality" if it walked up and said howdy.

But the writers of this screed reveal their bad faith by their vague, context-free allusions to alleged outrages of free speech. Referring to editors being fired for publishing controversial pieces could be alarming!

But pointing out that a highly-paid NYT editor resigned after allowing an overt call for fascist military suppression of protest -- where's the concern trolling over freedom of speech now? -- and claiming in his defense not to even have read it -- well, yeah, you'd ask for their resignation, too, and they should feel lucky you went so light on them.

They know that their readers would disagree with them on the examples they cite, and so they lie by omission in presenting them. And lies may be protected speech, but they aren't speech anyone is bound to respect.
posted by Gelatin at 1:30 PM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


Chomsky's public position for several decades has been that free speech without professional consequences

I don't think that is how Chomsky views the professional class, though, quite the opposite. In those pieces he is talking about civil rights in general, based on Voltaire, and argues that there are two good reasons for free speech (and freedom on inquiry in the academic context) as a civil right. The first reason (in his mind) is that any problems have recourse through the actual debate (which is why he goes on at length about why he doesn't care about the content of the debate; this availability of recourse is the key premise that lets him construct this two-tiered theory of free speech). The second reason he offers, which he emphasizes in the last sentence of the second essay, is that ceding this liberal principle leads to historical evils, and that price is too great to pay, etc. This second reason is analogous nuclear disarmament, e.g., some Americans argue that nukes are a necessary evil (because of world), Chomsky says nukes are evil period, or something.
posted by polymodus at 1:34 PM on July 9, 2020




Whose absences surprised you all, MeFi?
Lionel Shriver
Jonathan Franzen
posted by thivaia at 2:04 PM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


But it's clear that they intend, on the face of it, to use their status to protect others

At least half of the list is infamous for regularly using their status at powerful institutions to attack others or to protect abusers/harassers/rapists, so no, it's not clear. The fact that several of the signatories (notably Mounk, Singal, and Rowling) are engaging in targeted harassment campaigns as we speak, aimed entirely at people with less power than they have, tells me that their bullying was the planned end result all along.
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man at 2:08 PM on July 9, 2020 [18 favorites]


There is literally no specific instance discussed in that open letter, no real-world incident about which there might be specific and tangible controversy.
Freddie, there's an entire fucking list of specific instances in the letter. It's just written in a deceptively vague way because the authors knew that actually directly discussing them would weaken their position.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:10 PM on July 9, 2020 [15 favorites]


From the deBoer link:
what does it say when a completely generic endorsement of free speech and open debate is in and of itself immediately diagnosed as anti-progressive, as anti-left?

This is disingenuous bullshit. It is not in and of itself diagnosed, it is in and of itself and its context and its authors. deBoer knows this perfectly well because he teaches rhetoric.

But it's clear that they intend, on the face of it, to use their status to protect others

It's clear from this thread that that intent is anything but clear.
posted by PMdixon at 2:13 PM on July 9, 2020 [13 favorites]


growing tide of callouts and institutional measures against personal expressions

This doesn't hold much meaning without looking at *which* personal expressions. As noted above, quite a few of the signatories seem to have as their concern "I want to be unchallenged in stating dehumanizing things about trans people and I want my advocating for their forcible erasure to be treated as a parlor-room debate".

Then you have others who have a long record of "it's fine so long as I'm driving the reaction, but not fine when it's turned back on me".

Or "I don't appreciate people talking openly about my history of sexually assaulting people". Or "I don't appreciate people talking about my history with Epstein". Or "Just because people don't want to hear from me because I wrote that women who seek abortions should be literally hung from a rope doesn't mean I should be fired"
Or "Stating that women are inferior at programming doesn't mean I'm causing a hostile work environment"

I mean, at least the guy on the list that doesn't want us to judge him for talking about how he had sex with dolphins has a clear motive. (Not David Brooks, one above David Brooks)
posted by CrystalDave at 2:17 PM on July 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


I do have some idea. And I support trans rights.

doctornemo, you cannot claim to support trans rights in the abstract while simultaneously caping for people who, as many others in this thread and the previous MetaTalk have pointed out, use "freedom of speech!!" arguments to shield themselves from blowback re: the violence they perpetrate against trans people. Well, let me rephrase: you can CLAIM to support trans rights, but your actions speak louder than your words.

Thank you for letting me know where you really stand. I appreciate knowing who cannot be relied upon to support me or my trans family.

[edited to add a left-out word]
posted by zebra at 2:19 PM on July 9, 2020 [20 favorites]


I do have some idea. And I support trans rights.

I wish people would stop saying stuff like "I support trans rights" while pretending that the actions of the worst liberal transphobes on the planet have to be kept separate from a letter they pushed. The people that have been targeted are out here pointing out the dogwhistling and the bullying and the hypocrisy, you can not seriously expect them to separate that out simply because it doesn't meet some ridiculous grade-school debate club rules nonsense on objectivity.
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man at 2:20 PM on July 9, 2020 [22 favorites]


Mod note: One post breaking the guidelines removed. Remember: No name-calling.
posted by loup (staff) at 2:21 PM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


Mod note: A comment and some replies removed, some other replies left, apologies if it still needs some sorting out.

doctornemo, coming into this thread to do a lengthy "but let's talk about the value of free speech" thing without taking into account the very real context of the letter and the transphobic signatories is crappy and does not work as a value neutral point of discussion. This is precisely the sort of thing folks have expressed frustration about with these discussions in the past, the abstracting away of real life impact on marginalized folks for the sake of high-handed debate. Do not do that.
posted by cortex (staff) at 2:27 PM on July 9, 2020 [27 favorites]


When trans people and our allies campaign against people who are engaging in transphobia, we call them transphobes and are accused of engaging in "cancel culture". When transphobes campaign against trans people, they call us mentally ill, perverts, groomers and child molesters. Some of these people have newspaper columns. I'm thinking in particular of the NSPCC's decision to cut ties with Munroe Bergdorf last year, but there are many other examples.

Why is it "cancel culture" when trans people use our freedom of speech, but just "debate" when transphobes with platforms go after our community and the few of us who manage to gain a modicum of influence?

The issue here isn't freedom of speech: it's the power structures that the defenders of debate leverage to exert influence that is frequently welded against marginalised people.

Don't think of it as cancelling, think of it as taking an axe to the platforms that enable our oppression.
posted by xchmp at 2:29 PM on July 9, 2020 [40 favorites]


And if that scares you? Good. That means the things that were abstract to you before are now real. And if you have something that can be lost, well, welcome to the club.
posted by xchmp at 2:32 PM on July 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


(I do appreciate that no one is bothering to be disappointed in Lithwick who at this moment can be seen on Slate lauding Roberts for not breaking kayfabe)
posted by PMdixon at 2:38 PM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


John Holbo (professor of philosophy and regular contributor to the Crooked Timber blog) has a Twitter thread response/commentary:
"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." Some thoughts on 2nd-best solutions:

This maxim is patently, grossly inadequate for governing a blog comment box in 2020 - let alone a social media platform, let alone Public Reason and a Public Sphere. Ideally, we would live in a world in which this would be an ideal rule to follow.

Ideally, the world contains no trolls, bots, bad faith actors - or few enough they can be dealt with retail not wholesale in the Marketplace of Ideas. In a world in which everyone were exchanging more or less in open-faced good faith, this rule would be good.

In our actual world, however, it is not good. No, not really, sadly. Hence a dilemma.
A further 20-ish Tweets follow.

I think one significant way that people get tripped up by such letters is that they are so used to thinking in terms of this idealized world of bloodless, intellectual debate with only good-faith actors (and, I think in a lot of cases, without real-world consequences).
posted by mhum at 2:41 PM on July 9, 2020 [14 favorites]


I don’t know most of the signatories; are there odious transphobes other than Rowling? I’m just trying to get a better handle on this letter as a transphobic text. Taken as a given that society and its institutions are inherently transphobic, of course.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:42 PM on July 9, 2020




I'm actually pretty disappointed that Dahlia Lithwick signed this: I've really enjoyed her legal writing and her podcast over the last few years.
posted by suelac at 3:08 PM on July 9, 2020 [7 favorites]


Cathy Young has defended Rowling from the so-called excesses of the "woke gender identity" movement
posted by Glegrinof the Pig-Man at 3:08 PM on July 9, 2020 [1 favorite]


Every time someone cries about "cancel culture" my brain goes right back to all the people who warn about #MeToo going too far.

Yes, in the abstract I suppose that's theoretically possible. Yet the reality is #MeToo has never so much as taken a sideways glance down Too Far Avenue.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 3:13 PM on July 9, 2020 [12 favorites]


whose presence on the list of signatories was surprising?

Wynton Marsalis. He's one of the best-known contemporary jazz musicians among the general public, is frequently sought out by media for interviews as a representative of the entire genre, and has a (relatively) huge institutional platform in the Jazz at Lincoln Center organization, which he totally controls. It's ridiculous for him to be complaining about cancel culture.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 3:15 PM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


A lot of the signatories are people I'm familiar with from late-1990s and early 2000s internet discussions of free speech - people I think of as Old Guard assholes whose resemblance to that particular orifice came from their commitment to spew all kinds of shit, not (just) transphobia.

- Steven Pinker landed on my radar for his evolutionary psychology-based misogyny back in the late 90s.

- Martin Amis said Muslims are an existential threat to Britain, sometime back in the early '00s.

- Jeffrey Eugenides's Middlesex was (in my admittedly cis opinion) a hateful, ignorant novel about a nonbinary person that makes me cringe even to think of it. And he is so fucking pompous about writing it. And it won a Pulitzer. And it needs to be burned in a fire. I've never trusted him since I read it. (Happy to be educated if any nb/genderqueer folks disagree.)

- Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy, published between 2003 and 2013, was jaw-droppingly racist, misogynistic, and queer-phobic, and I remember viscerally the gaslight-y mindfuck of it all because it was also kinda-sorta superficially feminist? And genuinely progressive about sex workers? And yet the most putrid white-guy-from-the-Beat-generation levels of racism, misogyny, and queer-phobia. I've never trusted her since, though I have read her work. I didn't know about her transphobia.

I wish I had time to go through everyone I recognize on the list, but I gtg! And damn, I just realized Atul Gawande and Fareed Zakaria are on there, ugh ugh ugh, dudes, wtf, I thought you were cool :(
posted by MiraK at 3:18 PM on July 9, 2020 [8 favorites]


Here's an interesting Twitter thread that I think intends to make a case against the Harper's letter in terms that the signatories of that letter would understand.
posted by PhineasGage at 3:18 PM on July 9, 2020 [11 favorites]


whose presence on the list of signatories was surprising?

Wynton Marsalis.


The diversity of signatories is a pretty interesting window into the various media ecosystems we all subscribe to. Most people are focusing on Rowling for obvious reasons but there is a very specific group in my feeds that are lazered in on Marsalis and relitigating his generally conservative opinions on jazz and music history. I hope he's just a fuddy duddy and not a transphobe...
posted by Think_Long at 3:27 PM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


Wynton Marsalis has trashed the virtues of rap and hip hop. Small potatoes compared to the rest, but I imagine he upset some people with that.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:30 PM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


tbh I rolled my eyes and clicked away when I saw this letter the first time, but in giving it a more serious read I'm even more disappointed and disgusted with all the people on it who should've known better.

The opening alone is just ridiculous:
1. Generalized "this moment is important" statement (bad writing, writers, c'mon)
2. Protests against police brutality and for greater equality & inclusion in other fields
3. "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."

This straight up says protesting police brutality and bigotry is all great but hey let's not make this into a thing about changing our moralities. Because there's no chance all that brutality and bigotry came from fucked-up morals in the first place, right? How in the hell do you seriously grapple with point 2 but divest it from point 3?

Unless you're worried that point 3 might be somehow uncomfortable for you? Like maybe you'll have to grapple with some mistakes and bad judgment and shitty blind spots (or, uh, maybe your own bigotry)?

The more I think about it, the less forgiving I am of anyone who signed onto this letter. You've got to be really detached from current events not to see through it. At best, I expect a bunch of these signatories saw a name they liked and decided they wanted to be in the same room without really thinking about what they were signing.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 3:31 PM on July 9, 2020 [9 favorites]


Wynton Marsalis...I hope he's just a fuddy duddy and not a transphobe...

AFAIK, and to his credit, Wynton Marsalis is not transphobic, homophobic, or any other kind of -phobic. And while his musical conservatism, and more specifically, his efforts to be the person who defines what is and isn't jazz, has not always been well-received, it's not necessarily germane to this discussion.

My beef with him signing the letter has to do with the fact that he's one of the best-known individuals and has one of the largest platforms in his entire genre, so for him to be complaining about getting "canceled" seems disingenuous in the extreme.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 3:44 PM on July 9, 2020 [6 favorites]


Anyone who believes they care about the rights of marginalized and discriminated against people, and yet is willing to spend their precious and limited time in life writing long, cliched, void of meaning screeds about the dangers of cancel culture (and no amount of “just asking questions” fools anyone), needs to take a good long look in the mirror. And think especially about how much of their supposedly virtuous concern is fear over losing the privileges they have in life that they damn well know they didn’t earn through merit alone. You’re afraid because you always heard that life’s not fair, but you’ve been the recipient of the unfairness. Are you afraid of the audit?
posted by sallybrown at 3:45 PM on July 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


I’m kind of shocked not to see Conor Friesdorf or Jonathan Chait on there!
posted by sallybrown at 4:02 PM on July 9, 2020 [2 favorites]


I wish I had time to go through everyone I recognize on the list, but I gtg! And damn, I just realized Atul Gawande and Fareed Zakaria are on there, ugh ugh ugh, dudes, wtf, I thought you were cool :(
posted by MiraK at 3:18 PM on July 9


Well, I'm sure Fareed believes in being able to say whatever he wants as long as he's plagiarizing other reporters and not getting called out on the carpet for it. (Excuse me, maybe I should say having his interns and assistants plagiarize other reporters and then take the fall for it while he dismisses any knowledge of their actions so he doesn't have to get called on the carpet for work carrying his byline.)
posted by sardonyx at 4:16 PM on July 9, 2020 [5 favorites]


I don’t know most of the signatories; are there odious transphobes other than Rowling? I’m just trying to get a better handle on this letter as a transphobic text. Taken as a given that society and its institutions are inherently transphobic, of course.

I think some of those who aren't obvious transphobes probably signed the letter thinking it was a response to the Open Letter to the LSA about Steven Pinker, from a couple of days before. It's been a pretty big deal in linguistics-land, and I'm almost 100% sure that's why Chomsky, for example, signed it. Probably Pinker too, although I'm sure he also enjoyed being a transphobe.

As someone earlier in this thread pointed out, the Harper letter is so vague and full of platitudes that it has almost no semantic content. Its pragmatics depend entirely on the context (which is understood differently by the different signatories) and the signatories themselves. I'm not trying to defend any of the people who signed it. I'm just trying to understand why the signatories are so eclectic and why some don't seem to have a record of being transphobic.
posted by lollusc at 5:03 PM on July 9, 2020 [13 favorites]


I'm just trying to understand why the signatories are so eclectic and why some don't seem to have a record of being transphobic.

To give the transphobes cover.
posted by NoxAeternum at 5:07 PM on July 9, 2020 [15 favorites]


Urgh, this Harpers Letter is atrocious. It's poorly written, vaguely spews random aspersions, and then scuttles back to hide under its shell. As Rhetoric goes, it's just not very good.

I think having an open discussion about this here on MeFi is a good thing, despite some of the frictions. (sorry Mods, it's more work for you, but hey we appreciate it!)

I think it's worth deconstructing what the various signators intended. They have various motivations: some of them are feeling defensive, some of them are mean asses, some of them are fancy trolls, some of them are clueless, some of them are invested in a mindless defence of free-speech regardless of context (up to including the right to shout "FIRE" in a theatre), and some of them are just plain ornery contrarians. I think what they might have in common is insensitivity to context?
posted by ovvl at 5:29 PM on July 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


Here's an interesting Twitter thread that I think intends to make a case against the Harper's letter in terms that the signatories of that letter would understand.
I want to second the link that PhineasGage posted above, to Will Wilkinson's thread on this. He's very much trying, I think, to communicate to the those whose kneejerk reaction would be in favour of the letter. It's a good analysis of the dynamics of the communities and is, like, the first time I've seen anyone who I would assume would default to that churlish sort of free speech advocacy, actually be able to explain in an acceptable way why someone might support cancel culture or simply fail to see an issue with it.
posted by fatbird at 5:31 PM on July 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


Who is served by this discussion? Whose effort does it require?

I personally am served by this discussion, because the links have been invaluable in explaining it to people who are not aware of the implications and who take it at face value, or have seen some defense of it, etc. But...the collective effort on this thread is probably a hundred times greater than the effort to slap the letter together in the first place, so I think your second question is very pertinent.
posted by mittens at 5:57 PM on July 9, 2020 [10 favorites]


Who is served by this discussion? Whose effort does it require?

I don't think anyone is required to supply their efforts to this thread if they don't want to. It's entirely understandable to view the article as not worth discussion, but that's not a universal position. And I have already benefited somewhat - I wouldn't have learned of the LSA/Pinker kerfluffle otherwise.

Myself, I think the signatories are more interesting than the document they signed - which as a number of folks have already pointed out, is thoroughly anodyne. Kian Tajbakhsh, for example, doesn't strike me as someone for whom questions of freedom or state violence are abstractions. It's worth recognizing that some of the signatories are coming from lived experiences outside the normal range of the voices we're used to, and may be following logic internal to those experiences. Just as "free speech" sounds different to someone who's heard it used mainly in the same context as "states rights", so it may sound different again to someone who has seen the inside of an Iranian prison.
posted by AdamCSnider at 6:25 PM on July 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


I guess some signatories might see it differently.
posted by asra at 6:46 PM on July 9, 2020


The one signatory, really the only one, that surprised me was Jeet Heer. He's a writer for the Nation who responded to Ian Buruma's firing by basically saying "told you all he'd be a bad choice for editor." Drips with contempt for Bari Weiss or David Brooks when he can be bothered to pay attention. Here he is co-signing a letter with them. Made it clear he's not endorsing the other signatories and more employee protections and unions are the best thing you can do for free speech . . . so I still don't get why he signed.

The flip side is Will Wilkinson's response, linked by PhineasGage above, which isn't completely surprising for him but not what I expected when I clicked on something by a Nikansen Center centrist type.
posted by mark k at 6:54 PM on July 9, 2020


One funny thing about Boylan is how she went from free speech warrior to apologizing WITH COMMENTS DISABLED in like 24 hours. Regardless of her stance on the letter, that's still pretty "Free speech for me but not for thee".

From Julia Serano on Twitter:
> if you're reading this in real time & wanna know what Harper's letter is really about, I encourage you to check out @/jennyboylan mentions. she signed it, so I was following to see whether she would comment or not...

> ...before she did so, her mentions were the occasional (every 10-15 minute or so) trans person asking why she signed it. some were admittedly angry. about an hour ago, she tweeted an apology, saying she didn't know who else was signing it

> ...if you check her mentions now, they are *filled* with people (mostly seemingly cis men) berating her for "backpedaling" & being a "coward"/"chicken"/"Borg" (yes, the entire left are Borg, apparently). and THIS DYNAMIC IS THE WHOLE FUCKING INTERNET...

> ...for every one sincerely angry or truly obnoxious trans person who shows up in your mentions to complain about you transgender article/statement/manifesto, there are *hundreds* of disgruntled cis people piling on a trans person somewhere...
Zero shame to Boylan for not wanting her mentions to turn into a worse trash fire than they already were.
posted by Lexica at 7:03 PM on July 9, 2020 [22 favorites]


I am curious about the association issue. Someone had to sign first, and second, and so on. I have no idea for open letters like this (I am not a celebrity in any realm and thus don't get asked to sign open letters on any topic), whether it is customary to say "I will decide once I find out who else is signing."
posted by PhineasGage at 7:12 PM on July 9, 2020


Probably most open letters are much less vague, and so association will be less of an issue - you only worry about who else might sign along side you if the thing you're signing is so incredibly broad that people with radically/unpleasantly differing opinions will also find it congenial.

Contrast with the LSA open letter linked above, which is very specific in its accusations and the examples it gives. I doubt any of the signatories worried about association since anyone who actually read the letter and who didn't share their core position on the issue wouldn't be signing it.
posted by AdamCSnider at 7:24 PM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


It's entirely understandable to view the article as not worth discussion

My own view is that discussing it reproduces some of the harms that it inflicts. With the transphobic background of some of the signatories and a lack of context that many people have for the way that silencing and cancel culture accusations have been extensively weaponized against trans communities, it was frankly inevitable that this discussion would privilege abstract concerns over the concrete harms being perpetrated against trans people.
posted by xchmp at 7:31 PM on July 9, 2020 [9 favorites]


In similar events, Halle Berry was just in the news for considering an acting role as a trans man. She did not make it about her or any perceived cancellation. She apologized and said now that she knew better, she'd do better. It really is that easy, at least the first step. Apologizing is not a punishment.
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:40 PM on July 9, 2020 [18 favorites]


Just to give my own take on why the context matters (for whatever it's worth): The letter seems to me to invite merely verbal agreement. Here's another example. I might be perfectly happy to sign a statement such as, "We should all stand up for what is right." But standing up for what is right means something very different for me than it does for a fascist or a white nationalist or an anti-trans bigot. If I had signed a statement saying we should all stand up for what is right and then found out that all the other signatories were neo-Nazis, you'd better believe I'd want my name OFF that statement. My agreement with the other signers would be merely verbal, and the way the statement would be understood by informed readers would not be what I had intended.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 8:23 PM on July 9, 2020 [4 favorites]


So people are posting about how folks like this believe in "free speech for me but not for thee" and I want to illustrate how this works with JKR. JKR is crying on twitter that she's under attack, signs this letter proclaiming her right to free speech... and out of the other side of her mouth is threatening to sue trans activists who don't delete tweets criticising her. And threateningly DMing folks doing Harry Potter satire lampooning the latest TERF meltdowns JKR is having. This is not about speech- it's about folks with power having to reckon with consequences to their speech for the first time in their lives- and throwing a diaper baby tantrum over it. This letter means the pressure is working and we have to never let up.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:24 PM on July 9, 2020 [22 favorites]


The context is a key detail that makes the Harpers letter terrible because the letter is so vague otherwise. But it's not the only thing that makes this a bad letter. There are a number of issues with the arguments themselves, such as they are, regardless of the context of the signatories.


For starters, it blames some things on "the mob" for which blame or responsibility lies elsewhere; specifically:

1. Lack of labor protections. This includes (a) "right to work" states that allow employers to fire employees for basically no reason, and (b) the increasing casualization of many professions, so that more and more folks are not technically "employees" of the companies that pay for their labor. This has been pointed out by a number of other folks, eg. in the two related threads here over the past couple days, but "the mob" doesn't have the power to fire people, only their employers do. So if someone thinks that someone else has been fired unfairly, the responsibility there should rest with the employer who made that decision. The Harpers letter completely ignores this.

2. Capitalism in general. Many of the Harpers letter signatories are writers, who sell their work to different outlets in more of an artisan relationship than employment relationship. Free speech, as others have pointed out above, is not the same as having a right to a platform or being able to make people listen to you if they don't like what you say, though. In particular, while we have a human right to have our basic needs met (for food, housing, health care, etc.), there's no right to make money in any given business or artisan endeavor. If folks don't like what someone is selling, they have a right not to buy it, and that's not a "freedom" issue for the seller. Similarly, no one has a right to a job in a specific, preferred profession. Losing that income source can be very scary and destabilizing because of the lack of adequate safety nets to provide for people's basic human needs, especially in the US. And for upper middle class folks who maybe have some ingrained, conscious or unconscious, classism, having to take a lower paying, lower status job can be distressing (I don't necessarily have a lot of sympathy for the source of this distress, but can acknowledge that folks in that position often do feel real distress about the loss of perceived status). Anger about that situation is more appropriately directed against the capitalist system that is responsible for all of those secondary consequences, however, not "the mob" who no longer like what's being sold.

3. Social media bullying, harassment, and abuse. This is a huge problem, period. It's a background cultural problem, but also the structures of the major social media platforms promote these sort of harmful interactions, rather than structurally discouraging them. That is, first and foremost, a structural problem with our social media platforms.

The structural problems with our social media platforms do tie in with the broader cultural problem of how colonialist, white supremacist patriarchy affects our interpersonal relations, de-valuing kind and loving interactions and promoting relational violence and machismo (for further reading, see eg. bell hooks). Unfortunately, the Harpers letter misses the ball in this area, too. These sort of anti-progressive, unloving interpersonal dynamics do show up even in progressive spaces. Not surprising, because it's the culture that we all grew up in and the ways of interacting that were ingrained in most of us from our earliest days. So you see this sort of behavior "on both sides" in that sense. But that doesn't make both sides or both ideologies equal - you see it in progressive circles because of the power differential and because authoritarian, dominance/hierarchical relationships are the cultural norm. So the ideologies and the dynamics of how and why those bullying, harassing, or abusive interactions occur differ in important ways that are missed by the "both sides" framing. Importantly, the sort of framing used in the Harpers letter obfuscates the source of this cultural problem, and thus prevents us from working toward effective solutions. In addition, as mentioned above, to completely ignoring the role and responsibility of the structural problems with our social media platforms.


Beyond misallocation of blame, there's yet another major problem with the overall background assumptions or framing of the letter (rather than in the specific arguments or details, or lack thereof). The writers present themselves as if they are on the same side as, or possibly even to the left of, protesters against anti-Black systemic racism, or other progressive activists. Briefly, they are Martin Luther King's "white moderates". They're classist AF, but don't think they are and get upset if you suggest it. They end up supporting racist policies (eg. the Bill Clinton era changes to welfare and policing), but think that they're actually being helpful, and get upset if you suggest that they're actually acting in racist ways. They cluelessly equate losing professional positions with losing lives, and have no clue that the professional consequences they're complaining about are just the regular life struggles of a lot of poor and racialized people or people who don't fit into societal gender normativity. They don't realize how the speech of folks lower on the socio/economic ladder than themselves is already restricted, and how justice is a prerequisite for actual freedom of speech. And so when some of those restrictions are loosened and folks who were previously unable to contribute to political dialog speak up, they hear those voices as attack rather than recognize that this is what the opposing speech they idolize actually looks like.

All of that has already been noted more eloquently by other folks than myself. But getting back to my first point in the last paragraph: you can tell by the language they use that they are disconnected from any sort of actual leftist social struggle or activism. For example, there's already a word for the sort of false accusations against someone on one's own "side" that the Harpers letter sort of claims to be about - badjacketing. Feminists and others have been talking about the issues of bullying, harassment, and abuse online for decades, and we actually know a fair amount by now about how and why it happens and what to do about it. Tenants' unions and labor organizations of folks in marginalized jobs (migrant agricultural workers, fast food workers, other underpaid service industry workers) are very well aware of the problem of being fired or kicked out of one's home arbitrarily for, eg., one's social media activity outside of work, and have been trying to call attention to the much more common situations where this happens and improve labor and tenancy protections for decades. The lack of any sort of mention in the Harpers letter of the long struggles that folks in more vulnerable groups have had with the general issues that the letter claims that it wants to talk about is kind of insulting in its self-important, self-righteous ignorance. We shouldn't expect a random person new to social justice struggles to know all of this, of course. But when folks with a lot of cultural power claim a leadership standpoint, and claim to know what is best for movements for social justice, yet aren't familiar with the history and terminology? That shows a level of disrespect that merits a less respectful response.
posted by eviemath at 8:39 PM on July 9, 2020 [32 favorites]


I don't think anyone is required to supply their efforts to this thread if they don't want to.

Funny side note, not 15 minutes ago I was cutting a check for $71.98 to the State of Colorado over my fiance's unpaid toll. That is, $1.98 for the toll and $70.00 for the summary judgement, penalty, and late fees because they were sending the notices to the wrong address for two years! Something they called "due and proper notice".

The metaphor should be clear: minorities can elect not to pay spoons now to defend their personhood and argue, among other things, that this supposed liberal ideal of separating ideas from persons is a petitio principi, but they'll end up paying a hundredfold spoons later when our culture decies Initiative FU2, Protect the Children from Deviants, should become law.
posted by traveler_ at 8:41 PM on July 9, 2020 [13 favorites]


Probably most open letters are much less vague, and so association will be less of an issue - you only worry about who else might sign along side you if the thing you're signing is so incredibly broad that people with radically/unpleasantly differing opinions will also find it congenial.

I once signed an open letter that I then went ahead and requested my name to be removed from again once I saw the list of signatories (most of whom signed after me). The letter was not vague, and it was about a concrete action that I in theory thought was probably a good thing (to create a sub-organisation of a professional association I'm part of, for a topic that some people work on). However when the full list of signatures (collected by email and social media) went up on the website, it was 99% white men, many of whom had whined over the years about our professional organisation's conferences not being "rigorous" and "scientific" enough. It suddenly became clear to me that what they wanted was a separate group for the white men to discuss "hard" science, so they didn't have to hang out with the gender studies / queer theory / politics researchers any more. I was so embarrassed to have my name on that letter at that point.

Almost all open letters gain extra meaning through their signatories, because what readers know about previous behaviour and statements by those signatories reveal their aspirations for the outcome of the letter.
posted by lollusc at 8:55 PM on July 9, 2020 [21 favorites]


Whose absences surprised you all, MeFi?

Sam Harris, Thomas Friedman, the whole genre of "I'm just asking questions" NYT op-ed writers.
posted by smoke at 9:05 PM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


Jay Rosen:

I was not asked to sign this letter. I would not have signed if asked. Colleagues and friends did sign. Had it not been posted on the web, it would have had zero effect. But the letter is not native to the web. It has no links. This, I think, is a clue.

The letter reacts to a shift in public debate. Some of the people once told to send letters to the editor now have more followers than the editor. Not linking to what you're talking about allows for a lower standard of debate among those who claim to be protecting high standards.

posted by mark k at 9:11 PM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


Also, this weasely "free speech" misdirection/ gaslighting has been used by people not wanting to relinquish privilege or face consequences since at least the mid to late '90s when I, personally, first encountered it. I'm pretty sure it was starting to be a thing even before then. Between that and the gaping failures in structural analysis in the actual text of the letter itself, Chomsky should absolutely be held fully responsible for his signature.
posted by eviemath at 9:11 PM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


This letter seems carefully designed to trick out-of-touch older lefties into signing on. The vague language scrubbed of any explicit referents, the classic 19th-century liberal terminology, and the very fact that it is a "letter" -- whatever the hell that is -- seem intentionally structured to draw three groups: the hateful who understand the context; the hateful who pretend (perhaps even to themselves) not to understand the context; and the decrepit who genuinely don't know the context and are too dumb/self-satisfied to suspect anything. I would be really interested to know more, in a systematic way, about the order of signing and who specifically was mentioned as having signed it to each new signatory, and of course about who declined to sign it. It's possible that it genuinely just evolved into this watered-down, winking-reference formulation as the result of dialogue among the initial signatories (whom I would include in either hate-1 or hate-2 categories) and then managed to capture a few out-of-it signers after it started circulating. But that seems less likely than that it was designed to do exactly what it did: catfish liberals in a sort of ponzi scheme of reputation following.

None of that is to say that the category 3 signatories -- those who are genuinely out of it -- are not morally to blame. Obviously they should be ignored from here on out since they are clearly ignorant of the intellectual life they claim to be participating in, and their past work should also be reevaluated for potentially having done the same in its day. But they are also to blame because being out of it is still, for all of them, a moral choice, a hate-2 ducking of what is, after all, at the heart of liberal/left politics at this moment. They aren't just old fogies, they are cowards at best, and claims to have been snookered are at best just changing the moral category of their malfeasance. But that aside, I would still be interested in the social engineering behind this letter, which seems so similar to the social engineering the far right has been engaging in for many years now. Who wrote it, where did it start, what order were the requests made? Harpers for now is feigning stupidity, but it seems likely there was more malice at work than that.
posted by chortly at 10:09 PM on July 9, 2020 [6 favorites]


It's like they combined three kinds of social hacking in one: Milo's "don't you support free speech" BS; spam's obfuscated links (where some signers don't realize the examples are referring to specific events); and Zuckerberg's ivy-league-first prestige hacking in the FB rollout.

(Though again, anyone who fell for it only has themself to blame, and probably is only pretending to have been fooled in any case.)
posted by chortly at 10:29 PM on July 9, 2020 [3 favorites]


I am curious about the association issue. Someone had to sign first, and second, and so on. I have no idea for open letters like this (I am not a celebrity in any realm and thus don't get asked to sign open letters on any topic), whether it is customary to say "I will decide once I find out who else is signing."

It's like organising a certain kind of party or casting a film, you're having lots of simultaneous conversations and are a always slightly pushing the boundaries of truth about who is committed.

So you tell X, "Y is on board," when Y has said they are considering it. When X now tells you they will consider it, you get back to Y and tell them "X is on board." You only need to keep this up for a short period until some of the commitments become concrete and then you're off.
posted by atrazine at 12:59 AM on July 10, 2020 [7 favorites]


Almost all open letters gain extra meaning through their signatories, because what readers know about previous behaviour and statements by those signatories reveal their aspirations for the outcome of the letter.

Clearly so, but I would suggest that one major extra meaning resides in the notion of being important enough to be asked to sign, which tends to be an exclusive club, and that exclusivity can often carry a signal or meaning of its own. In this case it speaks to the importance of power behind the unequally applied aspects of "free speech" and how one's standing can or is hoped to act as a buffer to the kinds of consequence people who don't have standing constantly face in their attempts to be heard.

If a group of climate scientists were to sign a letter demanding governmental action of some specific sort I would expect them to read the letter they were signing to ensure they agreed with the science used as proof of their claims to make sure what they signed on to wasn't at odds with the evidence. That's their area of expertise, climate science. The area of expertise for writers is writing, the use of words, ideas, and weight of argument to convince or enchant. Some writers, to be sure, will have a history that might lend a reader to give their words added attention for either generally being aligned with one's own thoughts or for being in opposition to them.

That call to attention should can act as a signal, but the words and their meaning is the area which the writers should be expected to fully understand in their consequence for being the reason they get any added attention at all. Being a important figure doesn't act as a guarantee of morality or even consistency in importance of their arguments, it only signals the writer found a receptive audience for their skills that may have little to do with any new claim they might make. Reading letters for their signatures in many ways goes more to reiterating the concept of their being people of import who should be seen as separate from the rest, which is entirely problematic and has been a key flaw in our celebrity and power obsessed culture.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:46 AM on July 10, 2020 [2 favorites]


Or to put it another way, the framing of the argument in the letter as being about speech obfuscates the fact its really as much about power, which is why it might read differently in the US than abroad where power is arrayed differently.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:06 AM on July 10, 2020 [9 favorites]


I've been sort of idlying think about the letter and what position it's trying to stake out with "cancel culture". I think Will Wilkinson's thread about liberalism having defined boundaries of discourse is spot-on, although I think he would have been served by pointing out that speech is often the only weapon many of the people trying to protect their rights have. They don't have institutional power, and the legal protections against bigotry don't actually help. If they use their speech in just the right way, they can occasionally get someone fired. (There was a time where I'd expect Ken White to sign onto that letter - when I first came across Popehat, he had a very first-amendment only-solution-to-bad-speech-is-more-speech point of view, and I see he's realised, as he once put it when complaining about free assembly, that this right can be a sword as well as a shield.)

I don't know if this is a strawman, but: if I dig part the obvious alt-right weaponising of an obscure term as the latest cudgel; and past the poor-me hypocrisy of people who unthinkingly spread their bigotry, or are repeatedly wrong in public and did not listen to or learn from the polite criticism and are now clutching their pearls at the fed-up criticism; and past the few people who are genuinely concerned that marginalised people have less room to speak without putting their livelihood at risk, and were hoodwinked - if I dig past all that, and I'm aware for many it's a big if, it sort of feels like the fear is that there's such a prodigious amount of argument being created, and you're now a bad person for not keeping up with it in a way that can theoretically mean your job is on the line. There's no authoritative source; no clear place to start that you can trust is True; no agreed baseline; the demand is to 'educate yourself' but all the supposed resources are just blog posts and online articles and maybe one actual academic book. Is any of it verifiably true? Like, evolutionary psychologists will all insist on each others' work and all of it is delusional bullshit.

I can understand that fear, assuming it's real and not words I'm putting in a fictional mouth. My job is not on the line because I still don't know what exactly a 'simp' is. But if that fear is that suddenly there's this whole chunk of culture that rejects the academy, rejects the standards of 'debate', that had to build its own parallel structure at times, it's not hard to understand why they had to do that to be able to talk about their own experiences. (But also if you need something from the academy when it comes to transgender people at least, you could do worse than starting with a geneticist's understanding of how fluid biological sex is.)

But also I kind of feel like, and now I'm really reaching, that it kind of exposes the lie at the heart of liberal society. Liberalism, as a philosophical movement, has insisted that society advances when all men, particularly the disenfranchised, can express their ideas in free, reasoned, good-faith debate... and it's never once managed to do so. Why exactly do we celebrate women getting the vote centuries after liberalism rose to re-organise European society, instead of seeing it as a shameful indictment on those who built those societies that they couldn't even grant equality to their partners? How many more times do we have to argue over whether certain people deserve rights that the basic philosophical framework of their countries already granted them?

I don't know. These are thoughts that's been bouncing around in my head, and I don't know if they're wrong, and I don't know if they're unintentionally hurtful, but they're not going to do any good in my head.
posted by Merus at 2:58 AM on July 10, 2020 [6 favorites]


One name that I did recognize--Deirdre McCloskey is a libertarian who is a professor of economics. She's also a trans person.

I tried reading some of her essays years ago but decided her libertarian ideas were more libertarian naivete wrapped up in fallacious mimesis of elite academic language. Much like this letter. Naive liberals or libertarians, for all their intellectual power, seem to have this defect in common, see Steven Pinker, etc.
posted by polymodus at 3:20 AM on July 10, 2020 [3 favorites]


Liberalism, as a philosophical movement, has insisted that society advances when all men, particularly the disenfranchised, can express their ideas in free, reasoned, good-faith debate... and it's never once managed to do so.

I'd suggest that's because all other rights are subordinate to that of equality. That's the foundation on which society must be built otherwise all else will simply reinforce the unequal social structure.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:22 AM on July 10, 2020 [3 favorites]


[JKR is] threateningly DMing folks doing Harry Potter satire lampooning the latest TERF meltdowns JKR is having.

Homo Neanderthalis that particular DM is a fake/spoof. Rowling did threaten to sic her lawyers on another person out in the open though, your first link is legit.
posted by MiraK at 3:37 AM on July 10, 2020 [8 favorites]


But also if you need something from the academy when it comes to transgender people at least, you could do worse than starting with a geneticist's understanding of how fluid biological sex is

You know, having been diagnosed with "transgenderism" (seriously, that's what's on the letter), the subject of the fluidity of biological sex did not come up once. There were no geneticists involved. Not even a single genetic test was carried out. Really, the fluidity of biological sex only has relevance as a response to transphobic arguments around the fixedness and immutability of sex. As a starting point for understanding trans people it's very much like recommending responses to creationism as a starting point for understanding evolutionary biology.

But that's where so much of the public discourse around trans people is. Hidden behind the debris of our ongoing struggle to have and maintain our place in the world. This is tiring. Behind all this, there are trans academics writing about trans issues and it really shouldn't be too much to expect academics who want to have opinions about us to actually engage with that.
posted by xchmp at 4:20 AM on July 10, 2020 [19 favorites]


... designed to trick out-of-touch older lefties into signing on ...

I dunno. I'm sure you're right that the signatories motives are differentiated, but when I see Laura Kipnis's name on the list and recall her issues with Title IX, I just imagine the collective intake of breath among transphobes when Bostock heralded expanded workplace policies linked to Title VII. Anti-discrimination policies cover people with tenure too, and I think they know it super well as one of the few ways they--or the colleagues they want to go to bat for--can get into trouble. Signing this just two weeks later could be naïve, but if we take them at their word about "fear for their livelihoods" and "dire professional consequences," many are likely thinking about how recently the bar was raised.
posted by Wobbuffet at 5:32 AM on July 10, 2020 [4 favorites]




Here's the response. Since it's published in an obscure venue and doesn't have any household-name signatories, I expect it'll be seen by about one-millionth as many people as the original letter. Whose speech is being stifled, exactly?
posted by theodolite at 8:00 AM on July 10, 2020 [13 favorites]


Whose absences surprised you all, MeFi?

Lewis Lapham came to mind, but on reflection, not so much.

Back in the 70s when Lapham was the editor of Harpers, Larry Flynt was jailed in Cincinnati on obscenity charges relating to Hustler magazine. (See The People vs Larry Flynt.) Flynt's organization penned an open letter for the NYTimes calling for free speech rights, which Lapham was invited to sign, and did.

Lapham then bought a copy of the magazine and promptly withdrew. His reasoning, in short, was that the framers wrote the first amendment in an age of political pamphlets, into which category Hustler did not fall. Kill quote: "I'm not sure this was quite what Jefferson had in mind."

Lapham explained his reasoning in an essay, Confusion Worse Confounded (alas, behind a Harper's paywall, but reprinted in Fortune's Child). The Times discussed the matter (and more) here (Has The First Amendment Met It's Match?).

This current instance seems more a question of politics than freedom of pleasure, and so right up his alley. His absence may simply reflect his disinclination, noted in CWC, to sign manifestos regardless of the cause. If he's addressed the issue elsewhere, I've not seen it.

I would note that while Lapham would not stand on the barricades with Flynt, neither would he actively work to cancel him. He likened the press to a midden heap, another example of Sturgeon's Law, from which the odd jewel could to be found. You don't get one without the other.

It will be interesting to see what people think about this episode forty years from now. Wait long enough and everybody becomes an out-of-touch fogey.
posted by BWA at 8:41 AM on July 10, 2020 [2 favorites]


"We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other."

This is patently, ridiculously untrue. The most glaring example being white people (particularly men) living in complete, virtually untouchable freedom while people of color have had every sort of justice repressed, restricted and/or denied at nearly every turn since well before America was even a country.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 8:52 AM on July 10, 2020 [3 favorites]


That the response has 22 "unsigned/NDA" signatories gets to the heart of the issue.
posted by cardboard at 8:57 AM on July 10, 2020 [4 favorites]


For something a little different, writer and journalist Jaya Sundaresh started a thread on Twitter to "make fun of everyone who signed the letter" but #15 will shock her and led to a conversation.

Not a gimmick, she says. I don't know any of the people involved, links are not endorsements.
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 9:06 AM on July 10, 2020 [2 favorites]


Whose absences surprised you all, MeFi?

If it's been said, I've missed it, but I'm super curious about the organization of this letter. Of how, exactly the call went out and to whom it went out to, and who, if any, declined to join. Because, for example, how in the world is Andrew Sullivan not on this list? This whole thing has him written all over it. Where is the other Jonathan, Chait? And how did Greil Marcus come to sign on to this while his generational and professional peer, Robert Christgau either declined or wasn't invited?
posted by octobersurprise at 9:15 AM on July 10, 2020 [7 favorites]


This is patently, ridiculously untrue. The most glaring example being white people (particularly men) living in complete, virtually untouchable freedom while people of color have had every sort of justice repressed, restricted and/or denied at nearly every turn since well before America was even a country.

White supremacy and capitalism also restrict the choices white people can make: what we can wear, how we can talk, who we can love, etc. Having power and privilege is not the same thing as having freedom. As Emma Lazarus noted, "until we are all free, we are none of us free."
posted by zebra at 9:25 AM on July 10, 2020 [5 favorites]


but #15 will shock her and led to a conversation.

the thus far only first response to her report on that conversation has me nodding ...

the letter was such a rorschach!
posted by philip-random at 10:12 AM on July 10, 2020


A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate
But they are not trends — at least not in the way that the signatories suggest. In reality, their argument alludes to but does not clearly lay out specific examples, and undermines the very cause they have appointed themselves to uphold. In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern. What’s perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive.

The content of the letter also does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not. Harper’s is a prestigious institution, backed by money and influence. Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard. Ironically, these influential people then use that platform to complain that they’re being silenced. Many of the signatories have coworkers in their own newsrooms who are deeply concerned with the letter, some who feel comfortable speaking out and others who do not.

The letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry.
This letter, an effort started by journalists of color, puts text to the subtext in the first letter, calls out transphobia by name, cites examples of how "a number of the signatories have made a point of punishing people who have spoken out against them."
posted by zachlipton at 10:58 AM on July 10, 2020 [10 favorites]


The one signatory, really the only one, that surprised me was Jeet Heer. He's a writer for the Nation who responded to Ian Buruma's firing by basically saying "told you all he'd be a bad choice for editor." Drips with contempt for Bari Weiss or David Brooks when he can be bothered to pay attention. Here he is co-signing a letter with them. Made it clear he's not endorsing the other signatories and more employee protections and unions are the best thing you can do for free speech . . . so I still don't get why he signed.

FWIW Jeet has offered his defense of signing the letter: The Left Needs to Reclaim Free Speech. Much like the folks who've showed up to defend the letter in this thread, it relies almost entirely on divorcing the high-minded ideals in the letter from the specific context and signatories. He also apparently didn't know it would be published in Harper's.
posted by mstokes650 at 11:09 AM on July 10, 2020 [1 favorite]


Lauren Duca, An Open Letter to Open Letters
This open letter is written as a direct response to all open letters, but especially one open letter in particular, though this open letter, like that one, feels no burden to name concrete particularities of the ills it aims to address or any specific examples whatsoever. Such details might allow for a clear and concise discussion of the problem, and would therefore totally negate the premise that this letter is itself serving the purpose of an open letter, and that is, of course, to generate ambiguous confusion, and, ideally, slight nausea.
[...]
As the composition of another recent open letter suggests, open letters are not meant to generate positive discussion for future solutions, but, instead, are created for the sole purpose of grumbling about ambiguous grievances. We reject the false choice between writing open letters and having something to say.
posted by zachlipton at 12:36 PM on July 10, 2020 [25 favorites]


katie herzog

Holy shit. I missed that Katie Herzog is on this letter, but her signature is proof positive that this letter is a piece of trash aimed right at trans people, even more so than Jesse Singal's, if you can believe it. She is NOT a great light of literature like Salman Rushdie or Margaret Atwood. Nor is she an up-and-comer or some sort of "public intellectual." Her career has consisted of writing clickbait transphobic pieces for the Seattle Stranger, a regional alt-weekly (sample topics: how non-binary people are erasing women, why National Coming Out Day is dumb, and, of course, detransitioners). Her writing is fine but sometimes clunky and only really notable for its mean-spiritedness. She was laid off by the Stranger this year - not because she was "cancelled" (The Stranger seemed glad for the clicks she brought) but because of budget issues due to COVID. (I'm not linking to any of the articles I mentioned because I don't want to give them the traffic)

A friend theorized that Singal was one of the organizers behind the letter and Herzog's appearance as one of the signatories seems to be evidence for that, as they have a certainly-unlistenable podcast together.
posted by lunasol at 3:10 PM on July 10, 2020 [12 favorites]


I really don't see why this bullshit needs the oxygen
posted by winterhill at 4:01 PM

shit onfire dies in a vacuum.
posted by clavdivs at 3:49 PM on July 10, 2020 [1 favorite]


Sarah Jeong has a response.

I am nonetheless uneasy about the days to come. I admit this is partly because I am a professional opinion writer who has been aggressively canceled online, but really, mostly because I am past the age of 30 while staring down the barrel of mass societal change. But chaos is not the same thing as evil. And although the Reign of Terror may have followed the French Revolution, the terrors wrought by the system that preceded it were far greater. In Mark Twain’s words:

There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions.

To my fellow uneasy olds, I ask you to remember that chaos is not evil, change is not wrong, conflict is not violence, and relevance is not a human right. All things change. And while you have a right to have hurt feelings about it, don’t be surprised when your feelings lose out in the new marketplace of emotion.

posted by the duck by the oboe at 4:59 PM on July 10, 2020 [26 favorites]




To my fellow uneasy olds, I ask you to remember that chaos is not evil

One might say that chaos is actually a ladder?
posted by Justinian at 10:47 PM on July 10, 2020


sorry, I've waited nine hours for somebody else to weigh in but nobody else has. If chaos is a ladder, I'm staying off. The damned things are rickety enough already.

I prefer a weather metaphor -- butterfly wings to hurricanes and everything between. You can study it, you can make forecasts, but nobody really knows where it's going or what it's going to do. And if the damned thing gets violent enough, it doesn't matter who you are or what you've done, it's going to knock you off your feet, perhaps destroy you.

I respect chaos. As to whether it's good or evil or beyond either -- I wouldn't pretend to know.
posted by philip-random at 8:15 AM on July 11, 2020 [1 favorite]


This is also a really insightful thread about how social media discourse is so poisonous that good-faith discussions are effectively impossible.

This was good! This isn't the most coherent thought, but - it's extremely frustrating to me that often the pundit class will wail on about how poisonous social media is to real discourse (thus positioning themselves as purveyors of same) whilst simultaneously indulging in the same shitty practices themselves.

Recently Hadley Freeman, for example, fired off some real Big Brain provocative nonsense tweets in support of JKR. When a fellow journalist politely tweeted her back pointing out a couple of flaws, she replied OH I'LL EMAIL YOU IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO HAVE ANY REASONABLE CONVERSATION ON HERE.

But... we are talking about this now... because you fired off a bunch of provocative shit... on here!! the place you supposedly hate and are much better than! Argh
posted by ominous_paws at 8:55 AM on July 11, 2020 [13 favorites]


There's another good response to the letter in the HuffPost, that gets into specifics and also references the collective response cited above in The Objective: Don’t Fall For The 'Cancel Culture' Scam — Anecdotes are not data, free speech is not under attack — and elite journalists should find something else to write about.
By Michael Hobbes
- some quotes:
...Every statement of fact in the Harper’s letter is either wildly exaggerated or plainly untrue. More broadly, the controversy over “cancel culture” is a straightforward moral panic.

...The panic over “cancel culture” is, at its core, a reactionary backlash. Conservative elites, threatened by changing social norms and an accelerating generational handover, are attempting to amplify their feelings of aggrievement into a national crisis.

...“Cancel culture” has the same characteristics as previous episodes of pearl-clutchery. Nearly every example cited by the Harper’s letter turns out, upon scrutiny, to be something else entirely.

...the moral panic over “cancel culture” isn’t about workers losing their jobs or ordinary people facing online abuse. Almost every example included in the Harper’s letter involves powerful people — editors, authors, journalists, “heads of organizations” — being criticized from below.

...Ultimately, the Harper’s letter represents a much larger problem than oversensitive college students or uber-woke employees: the failure of elite institutions to see through the bad faith of the far right.
posted by bitteschoen at 2:14 AM on July 12, 2020 [15 favorites]


...Ultimately, the Harper’s letter represents a much larger problem than oversensitive college students or uber-woke employees: the failure of elite institutions to see through the bad faith of the far right.
They're not being duped, they're picking a side.
posted by fullerine at 2:57 AM on July 12, 2020 [13 favorites]


They're not being duped, they're picking a side.

Yeah I think it's important to be really clear that no one has tricked Harper's (or the NYT op-ed page, etc) here or in similar instances. The institutions know exactly what they are printing and they are OK with it because it preserves their monopolies on various flavors of prestige, and that's how they make their bread. No one has tenure or a sinecure come the revolution, after all.

It is not an error when these harms occur. These institutions hate with a purity no mere human could match.
posted by PMdixon at 8:22 AM on July 12, 2020 [2 favorites]


This very perceptive (and short!) Twitter thread from Alan Cole dissects the open letter's issues.
posted by PaulVario at 1:38 PM on July 12, 2020 [2 favorites]


From PaulVario's link,
The sides engaged on this version of the "cancel" debate are left of center and do not support Trump or Republicans generally.
This is an inaccurate statement. A lot of work has gone into erasing the left in the US over the past 80 years or so, both literally and rhetorically within the sphere of public discourse. If one looks at surveys of what sort of policies Americans support, however, it is clear that the rhetorical erasure has been more effective than the literal erasure; and that even defining the center as a moving median of political beliefs of people in the US rather than on some universal, objective scale, about half the letter signatories are somewhat to the right of center.
posted by eviemath at 12:26 AM on July 13, 2020 [3 favorites]


Yeah like I mean David Brooks is in no way shape or form left of center yet.
posted by PMdixon at 5:22 AM on July 13, 2020 [2 favorites]


rather than go digging for where Alan Coe (From PaulVario's link) may be wrong, my takeaway from his thread is that he, being pretty much outside of the argument

(center-right-libertarian) [...] a couple of steps farther along on some of the main axes of debate than the letter-signers.

has the perspective to observe that

almost everyone involved is saying something different from what they actually really mean.

with this thrown in by way of illustration of that:

Because people play coy about the real issues, lots of time gets wasted on fake debates:

a) is "cancel culture" real?
b) do you mean nobody should ever get fired?
c) what about Trump?

These topics aren't useful for actually hashing out the disagreement.


Worth considering, I think.
posted by philip-random at 8:42 AM on July 13, 2020


eviemath: "even defining the center as a moving median of political beliefs of people in the US rather than on some universal, objective scale, about half the letter signatories are somewhat to the right of center"

In my experience, what is considered the mainstream 'left' or 'liberal' in the US would be considered right wing in most of the rest of the world. I don't really see a lot of people in the US talking about confiscating the means of production and transferring them to the working class, you know?
posted by signal at 8:53 AM on July 13, 2020 [9 favorites]


signal, exactly, and even with the much weaker/more rightward US-specific definition of center, a sizeable proportion of the letter signatories are to the right if it.
posted by eviemath at 12:50 PM on July 13, 2020 [3 favorites]


There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions."

what in hell does Twain mean by two reigns of terror? What, the second is Napoleon?

ask you to remember that chaos is not evil, change is not wrong, conflict is not violence, and relevance is not a human right.

if this in comparison to the French Revolution and current events I suggest the author study the French revolution and not foist it with a Mark Twain banner pull quote.
posted by clavdivs at 1:01 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]


what in hell does Twain mean by two reigns of terror? What, the second is Napoleon?

Pretty sure he's talking about however many centuries of the ancien regime.
posted by PMdixon at 1:10 PM on July 13, 2020 [7 favorites]


what in hell does Twain mean by two reigns of terror? What, the second is Napoleon?

It's a passage from A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court, also quoted here by Ta-Nehisi Coates and here in Bartleby's. Twain is contrasting the blood and violence of the Revolution (which all right-thinking people fear, hate and despise) with the overwhelming indifference and ignorance (displayed by those exact same right-thinking people) to the crushing misery, slow starvation, tortures and immerseration and death inflicted by the previous thousand years of monarchical rule.

I used google.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:12 PM on July 13, 2020 [15 favorites]


> clavdivs: "what in hell does Twain mean by two reigns of terror?"

I always understood this quote to be a reference to the French monarchy (and, probably by extension, all monarchies and similar regimes).
posted by mhum at 1:13 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]


ok, one year of terror killed 40,000. add in all the other deaths from war and execution, starvation...then Napoleon, actor then director...the only thing that did destroy monarchy was violence, everything else but sacrifice and reason we're tried.

which all right-thinking people fear, hate and despise

how do you explain Philippe Égalité.
I read books.
posted by clavdivs at 2:44 PM on July 13, 2020


A little Letter Levity before the Terror.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:11 PM on July 13, 2020 [1 favorite]




(hopefully not too much of a derail, but if Weiss' mention of the Alice Walker/David Icke controversy surprised you the way it did me, Vox has an explainer on it.)
posted by mittens at 11:36 AM on July 14, 2020 [2 favorites]


Apparently Ben Shapiro and Andrew Sullivan have also left their positions as well - scuttlebutt seems to be that they, along with Weiss, are putting together a new platform.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:46 PM on July 14, 2020


Forceful arguments against open letters entirely: "The Cowardice of Open Letters: They’re badly written, open to doubt, and fundamentally unnecessary."
posted by PhineasGage at 1:23 PM on July 15, 2020 [2 favorites]


I'm not even going to read it, but the nytimes today has a front page link describing Steven Pinker as a Harvard professor being "taken aim" at by, hmm, some kind of "outcry" over "race and free speech".
posted by polymodus at 2:19 PM on July 15, 2020


They buried the lede, of course: "The linguists demanded that the society revoke Professor Pinker’s status as a 'distinguished fellow' and strike his name from its list of media experts. The society’s executive committee declined to do so..."

The real headline should have been Wealthy Famous Writer Not Actually Cancelled At All.
posted by mittens at 4:48 PM on July 15, 2020 [6 favorites]


Matt Yglesias has a new column which seems interpretable as context for why he chose to sign the letter: “The real stakes in the David Shor saga”
The idea is roughly that it’s categorically wrong for a person — or at least a white person — to criticize on tactical or other grounds anything being done in the name of racial justice. And while it’s not exactly a crisis of free speech, since people are always free to go do something else with their lives other than work in progressive politics, it’s nonetheless going to be a big problem for progressive politics if it becomes impossible to have frank conversations around the tactics and substance of race-related issues. Many on the left have conceded that Shor got what seems to be a raw deal. But there’s reluctance to see the true significance of this drama, which is not his particular employment situation but the fact that many people of some influence sincerely believe the tweet was out of line.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:17 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I posted that in the brittle debate thread, and it continues to illustrate how Yggy continues to avoid the elephant in that particular room - namely that white activists telling black protestors how to act is going to come across as hostile thanks to a long, ignoble history of them doing that as a means of social control. You don't get to ignore history and relationships just because they're inconvenient.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:49 PM on July 29, 2020 [1 favorite]


Or to put it simply - the reason it's impossible to have "frank" conversations around race related issues on the left is because there's a long, ignoble history of white activists being shitheels in such conversations - and thus if you want to have those conversations, you need to recognize that history and respond accordingly.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:55 PM on July 29, 2020 [4 favorites]


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