Yesterday, about 150 authors, academics, artists, journalists, and others signed and published an open letter titled, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” It begins with affirming the “needed reckoning” following the death of George Floyd:
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts.
Then it raises concerns about “forces of illiberalism” that have intensified in this moment of reckoning. There is “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” The letter is an impassioned appeal to old fashioned classical liberal ideals.
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.
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. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.
One striking thing is that the authors’ political views are quite diverse, from the neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama and conservative (sort of) NYT columnist David Brooks to people on the left such as Noam Chomsky. This is pretty unusual for a group of politically divided people to affirm a common set of values, and to do so publicly.
I’m embarrassed to say that I do not recognize many of the names. But there are enough people whose writings I admire but also many I would generally disagree with. And according to the NYT article on the letter and the reactions to it, there is also diversity of the kind more in the news these days: “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young…”
The reactions to the Letter have generally been not about the argument or the ideas in the letter. They tend to be ad hominem attacks or questioning of the motives of the people who signed it:
- Someone named Richard Kim (no relation) is quoted by NYT as saying, “I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach…”
- According to the NYT reporters, the reaction was “swift, with some heaping ridicule on the letter’s signatories… for thin-skinnedness, privilege, and as one person put it, fear of loss of ‘relevance.'”
- One writer from Vox said that the fact that Matthew Yglesias signed the letter made her feel less safe at Vox.
- One signer–Kerri Greenidge–asked to have her name removed but did not explain why.
- Another (Jennifer Boylan) said she signed it without knowing who else was signing it. So presumably the ideas were not the point for her.
The reactions by the signers who did not retract were interesting too. For example, Reginald Dwayne Betts, a Black poet who spent 8 years in prison, noted that the company is not one he usually keeps but said, “You need to concede that what’s in the letter is worthy of some thought.” In other words, he emphasizes the importance of the ideas in the letter. This is the gist of the comments by other signers too, such as Nicholas Lemann, the New Yorker writer and former dean of Columbia Journalism School.
So one side embodies real diversity–race, religion, politics, sexual orientation, cis/trans, young/old–and yet unites by emphasizing shared values and ideas essential for any society to function in a healthy way. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
The other side reacts with ad hominem arguments and by imputing nefarious motivations, without engaging the ideas themselves–a kind of small-mindedness that would be poison to any community but usually embraced by those who share an ideology that justifies any means to achieve its self-righteous goals. It is ironic that such an effort, in the name of diversity, is essentially a movement of consuming and erasing the Other into the Same. Only one way of perceiving and talking allowed.
We’ve seen such a contrast before I think, occupying a good chunk of the 20th century.