FILE PHOTO: Writer J.K. Rowling poses as she arrives for the European premiere of the film “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” at Cineworld Imax, Leicester Square in London, Britain November 15, 2016. REUTERS/Neil Hall/File Photo

THE NEUTRAL ZONE

On Tuesday, Harper’s Magazine released what it describes as “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” signed by over 150 prominent authors, scholars, philosophers, journalists, and other intellectual public figures of various political leanings and backgrounds. The letter was signed by J.K. RowlingSalman Rushdie, and Margaret Atwood, among others, is sparking a wide-ranging debate around free speech and cancel culture.

The letter argues that the “free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” The piece continued, “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.” Proponents of the letter argued that free speech is in danger, noting that the reaction the letter has received is proof positive that the arguments asserted within it are valid.

However, some signatories have already publically withdrawn their support for the letter. Senior Vox editor and co-founder Matthew Yglesias has received some backlash for his support of the letter, much of which came from his own newsroom at Vox. Emily VanDerWerff, a critic at Vox, tweeted her disappointment with Yglesias’ participation in Harper’s message, stating that she was “deeply saddened” by her colleges signature appearing on the same list as “several prominent anti-trans voices.” In her twitter thread, VanDerWerff also noted that she did not wish for Yglesias to be reprimanded or lose his job, stating, “I believe, deeply, in restoration over retribution. Some acts do require retribution; this is not one of them.” Opponents of the letter argue that the majority of the people on the list are too powerful and wealthy to have to worry about being silenced, while others argued that signing a document with controversial figures like J.K. Rowling would serve as a passive endorsement of transphobia.

MEDIA PERSPECTIVE

Artists and Writers Warn of an ‘Intolerant Climate.’ Reaction Is Swift. – New York Times – 7/7/2020
The killing of George Floyd has brought an intense moment of racial reckoning in the United States. As protests spread across the country, they have been accompanied by open letters calling for — and promising — change at white-dominated institutions across the arts and academia. But on Tuesday, a different type of letter appeared online. Titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” and signed by 153 prominent artists and intellectuals, it began with an acknowledgment of “powerful protests for racial and social justice” before pivoting to a warning against an “intolerant climate” engulfing the culture.

Lefties Hate on Liberal Open Letter on Free Speech – Reason – 7/8/2020
The 532-word document is a direct response to the remarkable past six weeks or so at American media and cultural institutions, which have experienced a wave of firings, resignations, and castigations over purportedly harmful words, deeds, and sometimes costumes. […] The list of writers crosses ideologies and oceans, ethnicities and religions, sexual preferences and genders, though the group tilts decidedly left—Vox‘s Matthew Yglesias and The Nation‘s Jeet Heer were the two names that surprised me most.

The Coddling of the Elites – In These Times – 7/7/2020
I say this, of course, in the context of today’s letter, published in Harper’s and signed by more than 100 of the worst people in the world of public intellectualism, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter is certainly not about any reasonable definition of “Justice,” and is about Open Debate only to the extent that people who make very healthy salaries arguing in public for a living seem to have a bizarre aversion to being argued against. 

Conservatives defend Vox journalist after he’s shamed by colleague for signing letter combatting ‘cancel culture’ – Fox News – 7/7/2020
Yglesias was one of 150 signatories including other liberal writers, professors, and activists who came together to defend civil debate in hopes of ending the ongoing efforts by the viral mob to silence dissenters. However, Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff released a letter of her own that she had written to Vox editors voicing her concerns of Yglesias’ inclusion in the anti-cancel culture letter.

INFLUENCER PERSPECTIVE

Jennifer Finley Boylan on Twitter, 7/7/2020: I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.

Malcom Gladwell on Twitter, 7/8/2020: 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.

Nesrine Malik on Twitter, 7/8/2020: ‘To those unaccustomed to being questioned, this feels personal. They have mistaken the new ways they can be told they are wrong or irrelevant as the baying of a mob, rather than exposure to an audience that has found its voice.’ Me on the Harper’s letter

Gary Weiss on Twitter, 7/8/2020: The words “cancel culture” don’t even appear in this shamefully skewed @nytimes piece. This is a real doozy. The mild Harper’s letter isn’t a reaction to “demands for diversity and inclusion,” but the opposite: demands for conformity and exclusion.

Laura Marsh on Twitter, 7/8/2020: What I would like to hear from a group like Persuasion or the writers who signed the Harper’s letter is: how do they account for the failures of “debate” so far? Why should anyone think they are any more open to being “persuaded” now than they ever have been?

porochista khakpour on Twitter, 7/8/2020: That you compare, say, Bari Weiss’s grievances while she is well fed at the NYT, with writers in the Middle East whose lives are in danger because of fundamentalist regimes & state-sanctioned intolerance, is just laughable & speaks to how delusional the spirit of this letter is

Sarah Haider on Twitter, 7/7/2020: “Please, think for a minute and consider: 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?”

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