Commentary

Power and the Harper’s Letter on Justice and Open Debate

Yesterday afternoon, Harper’s Magazine published an online letter, signed by 150 prominent journalists, novelists, academics, and other public intellectuals, condemning what they call “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 comes less than a month after Matt Taibbi published an essay detailing how a number of editors, journalists, and academics have lost their jobs or been censured for sharing controversial views in recent months, even when those views were not necessarily their own. The Harper’s letter makes oblique reference to almost all of the examples Taibbi cites, including the resignation of James Bennet as editor of the New York Times editorial page after being criticized for publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) that advocates for the domestic deployment of the U.S. military in order to quell social unrest; The Intercept‘s censuring of Lee Fang for tweeting an interview he conducted with an African American man who accused the media of only expressing outrage when Black people are killed by White people, not when they are killed by other Black people; and Civis Analytics’ firing of David Shore, a progressive data analyst, for tweeting a peer-reviewed article by Omar Wasow that provides empirical evidence for the electoral benefits to Democrats of peaceful as opposed to violent protests. The letter is careful to applaud the mass movement for racial and social justice that has gained so much momentum in recent weeks, but its raison d’être is to criticize what its signatories perceive to be an ascendant illiberalism in American culture, with special attention to illiberalism on the progressive Left.

Free expression has been on my mind lately, in part because I have been reading about the Free Speech Movement, but also because I am active on Twitter and have seen first-hand how some users attempt to advance rigid orthodoxies around questions of politics and culture. I sometimes agree with those orthodoxies, but not always, and I often don’t care one way or the other, so the online ideologues don’t really bother me that much. They can say whatever they want. I am, however, sometimes discomfited by the self-righteous, bullying tone with which some users attack others for expressing views with which they disagree. Even just yesterday, within moments of the Harper’s letter having been published, progressives on Twitter were out in force condemning Noam Chomsky for signing it, often in terms that mocked his advanced age, as if ageism isn’t itself a form of bigotry, while ignoring his decades-long commitment to free speech, including free speech for those with whom he most vociferously disagrees. It seems all too easy to point to this criticism of Chomsky as evidence for one of the letter’s central premises, which is that a creeping dogmatism now pervades public discourse and that too many people are poised to shame anyone who does not conform to a particular brand of progressive moralism. I am not enamored of the letter, for reasons I will outline below, but I do sympathize with its central claim that dogmatism, orthodoxy, and ideological purity pose a threat to freedom of thought and expression. This is true, whether it occurs on the Right or the Left, and those who value free speech would be wise to root out censorious, illiberal tendencies wherever they appear.

That being said, I have a few issues with the way that the Harper’s letter is framed. The first has to do with how it elides the differences between various forms of censorship and social pressure. For example, in its concluding paragraph, the letter states: “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.” This strikes me as both needlessly reductive and inaccurate, in large part because it draws a false equivalency between repressive governments and intolerant societies, while also exaggerating the extent to which intolerance holds sway in American society. The overt illiberalism that exists in many countries today, backed by force of law and state-sanctioned violence, is in no way equivalent to the sorts of discursive struggles that we see playing out on social media, in university classrooms, and in the popular press. I agree that repressive governments hurt the powerless and corrupt democracy, but what is happening on platforms such as Twitter is, in many ways, the opposite of that. Thanks to advances in digital media, and especially social media, a much greater number of people are able to express themselves in far-reaching, public ways than ever before. The vast majority of these people do not hold positions of institutional power, and many of them belong to groups that have long been denied not only power but also equality within American society. That people who have traditionally had little access to public platforms are now able to express themselves does not constitute a harm to the powerless, nor is it evidence that democratic participation is in decline. This is true even when those people are intolerant and/or promote conformity. What it does constitute, however, is a shift in power away from those institutions that have long controlled public discourse and toward a public that is clamoring to talk back and finally has the tools to do so.

This brings me to my second point. The fact that people who have traditionally been excluded from public discourse are now able to publish their views and thus gain greater social influence seems to have made media outlets (but also many other entities) much more sensitive to public opinion. This sensitivity is often motivated by economic concerns, as most publications cannot afford to alienate their subscribers, let alone lose advertisers. As a result, “institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments” against those who they deem to have invited unwanted controversy. Or so the letter says, though I think this conclusion is too broadly drawn. The examples detailed in Taibbi’s essay, all of which are alluded to in the Harper’s letter as instances of panicked damage control, very well may constitute injustices to the people whose livelihoods were affected, but it is important to remember that every publication has its own standards, norms, and culture, and to extrapolate a general conclusion about freedom of thought and expression from, say, Bennet’s resignation at the New York Times is a mistake. There are many publications that could have published Cotton’s op-ed without internal or public controversy. Indeed, there are publications that would have been celebrated for doing so, though not necessarily by readers of the New York Times. Ideological differences abound in the American press, and the actions of a single publication are not necessarily representative of a general trend in the culture industry. It is also worth noting that there were extenuating circumstances that seem to have influenced Bennet’s decision to resign. For example, he apparently chose to run the piece without reading it, which sounds like extraordinarily hasty and careless editing. One result of this breakdown in thorough editing is that Bennet lost the confidence of his colleagues. I mention these circumstances only to say that the context of Bennet’s resignation is not just public backlash, but also the unique institutional culture and standards of the New York Times. I support Bennet’s right to free thought and expression, just as I support the New York Times‘ right to choose its editors and set its own standards. But I also support the public’s right to criticize the New York Times in whatever terms it wants. Just because such criticism may lead to a resignation or a firing or censure does not necessarily mean that the criticism, or even the process, was illiberal. We need to attend to multiple contexts and specific circumstances to make that determination.

Finally, the timing of this letter strikes me as problematic. As I mentioned earlier, the Harper’s letter comes less than a month after Taibbi’s essay on the same topic, which was—to be fair—written in response to a recent surge in incidents involving professional retribution for speech-related offenses. But it is important to remember that most of these offenses touched on issues of race and racism, and they occurred in the context of a mass struggle against racism. The Harper’s letter is thus implicitly about the proper way to wage that struggle, and its message on this count is clear: Assuming an overly aggressive posture against illiberal bigotry is itself illiberal. What I find problematic about this is that it is being said at a time when powerful forces in this country are trying to convince the public that anti-racists are actually racists, that anti-fascists are actually fascists, that radical anarchists are erasing history, that educators are teaching young people to hate their own country, and that the free press in an enemy of the people. Lest we forget, just days before the Harper’s letter appeared online, the president of the United States delivered a major speech attacking so-called cancel culture and blaming social unrest on “years of extreme indoctrination and bias in education, journalism and other cultural institutions.” Like the movement for racial justice, this is also one of the letter’s major contexts, and it is within this particular context that its argument against illiberalism—an argument that is aimed directly at those who are speaking out most forcefully against bigotry and social injustice—strikes me as a troubling concession to the current administration’s view that the real threat to democracy is to be found not only on the progressive Left, but even among the ranks of the mainstream liberal establishment.

So why did Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Todd Gitlin, Zephyr Teachout, and other notable progressives sign the letter? I have been giving this some careful thought, and while I don’t have an answer I’m completely comfortable with, two major reasons do come to mind. The most obvious reason is that the letter offers a clear defense of open dialogue over and against what it calls “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism,” and Chomsky, Atwood, Gitlin, Teachout, and others want to make their support for free expression known. I give all of the letter’s signatories the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their belief in this principle. And yet there is something else at work in the letter, something that lurks within its paternalistic tone, within the very grammar in which it is written. Consider this: The letter assumes the first-person plural point of view, which is explicitly contrasted with “the radical right,” but also—oddly enough—with “the public” and “the state.” I’m not sure what to make of this, except to say that the letter is clearly written by and addressed to the elites within the culture industry, while at the same time attempting to chasten the general public for its intolerant excesses. The letter’s collective yet also exclusive first-person plural goes a long way toward explaining why its signatories feel compelled to speak out about this issue in this particular way. It seems to me that, to a significant degree, they do not consider themselves to be part of the public. To the contrary, they consider themselves to be thought-leaders and taste-makers, and they would like to be free to shape public opinion without actually having to be accountable to the public. In other words, the Harper’s letter is bound up in defending the freedom and prestige of a privileged class of intellectuals against raucous counter-speech on social media and university campuses, all while ignoring the state-sanctioned violence that all too many ordinary Americans have experienced while exercising their 1st Amendment rights in recent weeks.

None of this is to discount the potential chilling effect that public shaming and professional retribution may have on writers, artists, educators, and others who work in the culture industry, nor is it to chide the letter writers for publishing the letter. As I stated earlier, my sympathies are with the letter’s sentiments insofar as they challenge censorious, illiberal tendencies wherever they may be found. However, I also recognize that there are norms governing social behavior, including standards of acceptable speech, and that those norms are always being contested. What was socially acceptable fifty years ago may not pass muster today. As Percy Shelley wrote, “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; / Nought may endure but mutability.” Speech is, in many regards, much freer now than it was fifty years ago, and where there are strong social pressures against certain types of speech, they often exist to ensure greater justice and equality within the social contract. We should recognize that these social pressures are categorically different than the sort of repressive censorship that led, say, the San Francisco police to arrest Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, just as they are categorically different from the sort of social control and enforced conformity that led J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI to ruin the careers of so many people in the entertainment, education, and government sectors. We have come a long way since the repressive 1950s. To suggest that the current discursive struggle is akin to Cold War blacklists, or even that it constitutes an emerging social crisis—as the Harper’s letter so clearly does—strikes me as an unfortunate and misleading exaggeration. If the letter’s signatories are sincere in their call for more “exposure, argument, and persuasion” as opposed to “public shaming and ostracism,” then they can begin by rejecting false equivalencies, embracing nuance and context, and being much more honest about the power dynamics that are so often at play in debates over free speech

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