For years now, conservatives and freedom-lovers have lamented, mocked, and warned against the growing trend of cancel culture. The act — a tool of the woke class — includes digging up controversial things a person has said or done in years past and then getting them fired from their jobs or socially punished for the “crime.”
More often than not, it’s the political left that engages in cancel culture — though members of the right will employ it from time to time to make a point or settle scores.
So it was quite a thing when left-wing monthly Harper’s Magazine posted an open letter Tuesday signed by 150 liberal writers, journalists, and academics — from “Harry Potter” creator J.K. Rowling to rabid feminist Gloria Steinem — calling for an end to cancel culture.
The letter, naturally, begins with liberal platitudes (“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.”) and anti-Trump language (“The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy.”).
But surrounding that liberal boilerplate language in the first paragraph is the beginning of what grows into a woke nightmare of left-on-left violence.
The opening text points out 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,” against which the signatories are raising their voices.
They warn that “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion,” adding that if the left wants to achieve its goal of “democratic inclusion,” then it must “speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: 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.
Sounding downright Founders-like, the letter signers laud the protection of speech, even speech they might not like, and decry the “calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” And they criticize “institutional leaders” who engage in “panicked damage control” and punish those attacked by the woke brigade. For example:
Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
They close by warning that restricting speech will ultimately harm liberal causes and remind readers that the best antidote for “bad” speech is more speech:
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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. 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.
Other notable liberals adding their names next to Rowling and Steinem were philosopher Noam Chomsky, writer Malcolm Gladwell, academic Jonathan Haidt, Vox editor Matthew Yglesias, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, author Salman Rushdie, journalist Anne Applebaum, New Republic’s Damon Linker, and reporter Olivia Nuzzi.