Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, and Fareed Zakaria among dozens of writers, journalists, and artists who sign letter decrying the stifling of dissent.
By David Icke Turner
To dismiss the notion of hysteria in political discourse, one must ignore much of human history. Every so often, we need reminders that we are indeed the lowly species that fell for McCarthyism, the Spanish Inquisition, Satanic Panic, Witch Trials, Macarena, and Gangnam Style. In regard to popular culture, we have carved out a simple way to understand hysteria — dismiss it as a temporary fad and move on. This allows us to move beyond the finer points of our collective delusion and forget that we as conscious individuals partook in the lunacy.
A group of prominent writers, journalists, and artists are taking a crack at the contemporary collective delusion of ‘cancel culture.’ 150 of the world’s most renowned literary figures have penned a scathing rebuke against what it sees as “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 acknowledges the critical juncture we are at vis-à-vis civil and social justice struggles yet warns of the dangers of a false choice between “false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. “ In a condemnation of the current state of suppressed political discourse, the letter calls on readers to recognize that “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. “
Notably included as a signatory is J.K. Rowling; who has come under tremendous fire in recent days for claiming the experiences of those distinguished as biological females at birth is fundamentally different from those who identify as female later in life. The Harry Potter author penned a lengthy essay explaining her views to no avail. Though Rowling’s views could be seen as controversial statement in a time where trans issues gaining prominence, her worldview about the distinct experience of biological women was canon in feminist circles a few short years ago. That said, her deviation from what appear to be very rigid rules of adherence to dogma is now largely viewed as heretical to ‘woke culture.’
The entirety of letter, originally published in Harper’s Magazine, is below:
A Letter on Justice and Open Debate
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. But this needed reckoning has also intensified 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. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. 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 resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.