What could possibly be controversial about a letter entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate“? When I first read it and read through the many names of the famous and important signers, two things bothered me about it. First, it struck me as taking needless political potshots that were wholly irrelevant to its putative purpose, promoting free speech and thought. It seemed counterproductive to engage in political posturing when the point is that the concept of open debate isn’t a tit-for-tat political problem.
The second issue I had was that, while most of the signatories were people who had lived their support for open debate, some were leading voices in political correctness and silencing debate. It was like Richard Spencer signing onto a letter telling people to be nice to black people. It didn’t quite compute.
There was a third concern, although it wasn’t one that concerned me greatly. Just as the freedom to speak one’s mind is a cherished value, so too is the freedom to disapprove. If that disapproval takes the form of mob criticism, attacks and silencing speech, cancel culture in other words, why is that conceptually less protected speech than the original speech? Yet, this concern was a distant third for me, as the ability to express ideas with neither government nor mob retribution is, at this moment, primary. Without it, we never get to the secondary or tertiary levels. And, at this moment, primary speech is at huge risk.
So I was persuaded that the cause of the letter was the overarching point, and that a coalition had been built from people of hugely diverse views was what mattered most. While I expected the reaction to be the usual stages of grief, what swiftly happened was even more shocking than the need to write this letter, to sign onto this letter, in the first place.
One of the signers, history prof Kerri Greenidge, bailed due to the reaction to other signers holding positions that she, or members of the mob attacking her for signing a letter co-signed by heretics, found intolerable.
Another signer was Vox’s Matt Yglesias, who then became the subject of a letter by Vox writer Emily VanDerWerff, which she posted to twitter for the world to see.
According to the VanDerWerff letter, Yglesias signing the Harper’s letter made her “feel less safe at Vox.” She subsequently twitted that her purpose was not to get Matt Yglesias fired, although it’s hard to see any purpose to her performance if not to whip up a pro-trans mob to cancel him while maintaining plausible deniability, although it allowed her to attack another signer, by whom Yglesias was tainted for signing, which no doubt made her feel vindicated.
I wasn’t asked to sign the letter, and there’s no reason why I would. I’m just a trench lawyer, not a famous writer like J.K. Rowling, or public intellectual like Noam Chomsky, or brilliant musician like Wynton Marsalis. There were complaints about how the signers were rich, as if that was a strike against their coming out for free speech. But then, many were neither rich nor famous. There were complaints that they were old and didn’t reflect the pain suffered by the young, but the names, from Michelle Goldberg to Kat Rosenfield, proved that false.
And then there was the contention that no one on the list had ever been silenced. Salman Rushdie has a fatwah to prove otherwise.
It was an impressive array of people, whether you agree with anything or everything they’ve ever said. The letter wasn’t the one I would have written, but that’s the nature of signing onto a group letter. It’s a matter of compromise for the greater good. The same is true of the people who co-sign, with whom you may share no view other than the virtue of being able to express a view. Yascha Mounk, who is emerging as one of the foremost voices for the exchange of free speech and ideas, expressed the meta irony of the backlash to the letter.
If the crazy attempts to shame and fire people for signing this reasonably anodyne letter don’t convince you that our current intellectual atmosphere is deeply unhealthy, then you’re more invested in parroting the propagandistic line of the moment than in acknowledging the truth. https://t.co/b7sRSoqoTH
— Yascha Mounk (@Yascha_Mounk) July 8, 2020
Unlike philosophers, academics and the unduly passionate, I try to avoid framing anything in terms of such vagaries as morality, decency, dignity, and, sadly, “truth.” Truth once meant accurate facts. It now means the correct view, as if one view is “correct” and others are not.
And for anyone who thinks it’s a fault of the right, the left, or whoever poked your personal sacred cow, this is a game anyone can, and pretty much everyone does, play. We know what we want the outcome to be and put all our effort into coming up with some rationalization to get there. Often, it’s unavailing and silly, unreasoned and unpersuasive, although if the ends are chiseled in stone, a matter of blind faith, then no amount of reasoning is going to change our views.
People tell me all the time that they don’t “always” agree with me. Some hate me when they don’t and find me intolerable. That’s cool. Whether you agree or not is entirely up to you, and of absolutely no interest to me. On the other hand, the reason why, presented in a congent and modestly comprehensible fashion, might persuade me to come to your way of thinking. Or at least recognize that while I disagree with you, your view is sound.
Most of my Tuesday Talks try to frame issues in such a way as to offer an opportunity to argue one way or the other, with neither being “right” per se, but subject to debate. Sadly, few of you use TT in that way, although the few who do make me think I’m not completely wasting my time here.
The reaction to the Harper’s Bizarre Letter, however, has caused me to revisit some of my ideas. I’ve been chastised, if not attacked, for being politically incorrect, under the presumption that if I can occasionally come out on the right side of an issue (meaning that the woke child agrees with my outcome), I must have the limited intellectual capacity needed to sit near God’s children and only use the words, express the ideas, that are approved by the righteous. To some small extent, I try to do so in order to avoid creating needless side conflicts when the use of a word or expression of an idea isn’t central to the larger issue.
After seeing the reaction to the letter, one overarching idea comes to the fore: fuck you. I’ll say what I want. I’ll think what I want. And if that displeases you, tough shit.