“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is becoming increasingly limited,” says the letter, entitled “A letter on justice and open debate”. “While we expect this from the radical right, censorship is spreading even more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a fad for public shame and ostracism and the tendency to dissolve complex political issues into blinding certainty moral “.
The letter –
Detractors pointed out that many of those who signed the letter as one person put it, they have “larger platforms and more resources than most other humans” and are not at risk of being silenced. Others drew attention to the letter’s most controversial supporters, such as Rowling, who recently faced public sentencing for comments widely considered anti-transgender.
“I would like to take Harper’s letter seriously if it were not for the fact that at least some of these signatories have recently embarked on the same toxic behavior that they allegedly oppose the letter,” a critic tweeted.
Amid the protests, at least two of the signatories of the letter publicly distanced themselves on Tuesday.
“I didn’t know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was supporting a well-meaning, albeit vague, message against the shame of the Internet “, tweeted author Jennifer Finney Boylan, who is also an opinion writer for the New York Times. Boylan added: “The consequences are mine to bear. I’m so sorry.”
I didn’t know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was supporting a well-meaning, albeit vague, message against the shame of the Internet. I knew that Chomsky, Steinem and Atwood were, and I thought, in good company.
The consequences are mine to bear. I’m so sorry.
– Jennifer Finney Boylan 🐕 (@JennyBoylan) July 7, 2020
Historian Kerri Greenidge has taken another step forward, tweeting, “I don’t approve of this letter from @Harpers. I’m in contact with Harper for a retraction.” A Harper spokesman told the New York Times that the magazine verified the signatures and Greenidge signed. But the spokeswoman said Harper is “respectfully removing his name”.
In the meantime, other critics of the letter said they were invited to support it and refused.
“Okay, I didn’t sign THE LETTER when I was asked 9 days ago why I could see in 90 seconds that it was a fatuous and important trap that would only overwhelm the people he was supposedly trying to reach – and I said a lot,” tweeted Richard Kim, corporate director of HuffPost.
But what I don’t understand are the smaller group of people who obviously worked hard on those words and released them with great seriousness, pride and five. That arrogance is really what makes this moment deliciously fun
– Richard Kim (@RichardKimNYC) July 7, 2020
The letter’s production process began about a month ago, writer Thomas Chatterton Williams told the Washington Post. Williams, Harper’s columnist who helped drive the effort, said about 20 people contributed the language with the letter before it was sent out for signatures.
“We wanted the document to reflect the reality that many people who are not old whites share these concerns,” said Williams, who is black. He added that support for the letter was organically collected.
“It wasn’t intended as a prize or a definitive list of people who believe in these things,” he said. “But he was trying to show a wide range of voices, experiences, ideologies, ages and everything else, all being unified in the commitment to a set of principles that I find rather controversial.”
Richard Thompson Ford, a Stanford Law School professor and one of the signatories of the letter, told The Post in an email that Williams had sent him the text and asked for approval. Ford, who is also black, said he signed the letter because “he thought it was important and necessary”.
“I have witnessed too many cases of fierce killing for defendable if ideologically unorthodox ideas or relatively minor violations of political etiquette,” he said. “This is more true for Trumpian conservatives than anyone else, but it is also true for some progressives.”
The letter aims to denounce President Trump as “a real threat to democracy”, describing him as a “powerful ally” for the “illiberal forces” that are “gaining strength worldwide”.
“But the resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own mark of dogma or coercion – which the right wing demagogues are already exploiting,” says the letter.
He continues to criticize the growing number of “requests for rapid and severe punishment in response to perceived transgressions of words and thoughts”, and lists several vague examples of people who lose positions or are subject to severe repercussions as a result of “canceling culture.”
“This suffocating atmosphere will eventually damage the most vital causes of our time,” reads the letter. “The restriction of the debate, by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”
The letter ends with a request from the writers for “a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk-taking and even mistakes”.
“The way to defeat bad ideas is through exposure, argumentation and persuasion, not by trying to silence or want to drive them away,” he says.
The text began circulating widely online Tuesday after being promoted by Harper and some of his signatories, who tweeted who were proud to support the views of the letter.
Williams told The Post that he has since gotten “huge positive feedback” and praised the public figures who have expressed their support for the letter.
“The fact that people with platforms and with a certain reputation and safety at work have increased does not mean that they do it alone,” he said. “Many people have done something I think was kind of an act of generosity from people who are less established.”
On Twitter, Williams also touted the host of people who signed the letter, writing, “This is not a list of” the same old white males “.”
I cannot emphasize enough the range of points of view attached to this letter, but I cannot emphasize too much the atmosphere of fear that has led many people you know and admire to tell us with confidence that they agreed but were afraid to sign. This is why such a declaration is necessary. pic.twitter.com/Dc4d5p8rMV
– Thomas Chatterton Williams 🌍 🎧 (@thomaschattwill) July 7, 2020
But it was the list of names that seemed to fuel much of the anger directed literally.
“This is the first time in American history that people other than the elite of New York and Washington have had the opportunity to make their voices heard and Harper’s signatories are frightened that people are bad with them on Twitter, ” a person tweeted. “So embarrassing.”
That letter from Harper, for me, comes largely from people who are not happy about not conducting the ongoing conversation, addressed to many other people who feel unhappy that they didn’t conduct it.
– Linda Holmes thinks you’re doing great (@lindaholmes) July 7, 2020
Wow, hopefully it will work and these prolific writers with access to huge international platforms will no longer be suffocated. https://t.co/h58TtGmwoz
– George Zornick (@gzornick) July 7, 2020
Several people also noted that some of the letter’s supporters as a critic he wrote, “They’ve been involved in attempts to silence people they disagree with. And none of them lack exactly the ways to make their voices heard.”
“That letter from Harper should never have been written” tweeted Matt Zoller Seitz, television critic of the New York magazine. “It makes everyone involved seem unaware of the damage that some signatories have caused.”
For the signatories I respect, I’m sure you can have a productive conversation in good faith, but you should probably look for some of the names next to you on this thing and educate them first.
– Charlotte Clymer 🏳️🌈 (@cmclymer) July 7, 2020
Those who signed the letter hurriedly rejected the criticism.
“In fact, it is the duty of people with large platforms to use their reach to resist nonsense and speak honestly about what’s going on.” tweeted author Meghan Daum.
See predictable rejection of this along the lines of “lol all these people with big platforms complaining about boo hoo censorship”.
In fact, it is the duty of people with large platforms to use their reach to resist nonsense and speak honestly about what’s going on. https://t.co/QWgIWWTVzy
– Meghan Daum (@meghan_daum) July 7, 2020
Williams defended the wide variety of signatories on Twitter, writing, “I think many people misunderstand the purpose of an open letter.” He noted that the signatories of such a document are “supporting the ideas articulated in that letter – not all the ideas supported by each co-signer at every stage of life”.
Ford, Stanford’s law professor, echoed Williams’ comments in his email to The Post.
“I wasn’t told who else had signed on, but I’m not sure why it should matter,” he said. “I signed the letter; I have not signed a pact to endorse or defend everything that everyone else who has signed, written or done, nor do I imagine that the other signatories implicitly supported everything I wrote.
“We agree on what the letter says, but I certainly don’t agree on many other things,” he added.