Harper’s magazine published last Tuesday “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” a call for “[t]he free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society,” which the signatories to the letter believe “is daily becoming more constricted.” The letter was signed by some dozens of artists, intellectuals, and leading public figures, including David Brooks, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, David Frum, and J.K. Rowling—leftists and neoconservatives, black and white, male and female, trans, gay, and heterosexual are all represented.
The letter is short, a mere three paragraphs. It opens, “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 . . . ” But alongside such disruptions, a new regime has arisen, one which tends “to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
Such attacks on free speech, the signatories acknowledge, is something they “have come to expect . . . on the radical right,” but now “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” are becoming widespread. “This stifling atmosphere,” the letter closes, “will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”
The letter has quickly gained widespread notoriety, with many finding it offensive and annoying. Jeff Yang at CNN calls it “self-interested and elitist at best.” But leading black intellectual Gregory Pardlo (who signed the letter) told The New York Times, “It seems some of the conversation has turned to who the signatories are more than the content of the letter.” Particular ire has been leveled at the inclusion of J.K Rowling, who (as iFamNews has reported) recently came under intense fire for asserting the reality of biological sex, to the outcry of transgender activists around the globe. Indeed, as if to emphasize the point the letter makes, transgender critic-at-large at Vox Emily VanDerWerff posted on Twitter a letter that she had sent to her editors, complaining that Vox coworker Matthew Yglesias had signed the Letter on Justice. Other original signers have backed out, claiming they did not know who the other signatories were.
The whole thing is rather an interesting commentary on the state of discourse in America, wherein even leading leftist intellectuals are arguing that public Internet shaming and the shutting down of all dissent has gone way too far. And yet, as the blowback to this letter shows, even politically and culturally leftist leanings or opinions are not enough to shelter these signers from attack. Note the example of VanDerWerff, criticizing a respected coworker’s signature in part because of the letter’s supposed “dog whistles toward anti-trans positions” but also largely because in signing, Yglesia was keeping company with “several prominent anti-trans voices.” We cannot even keep company, the message goes, with people who have reasoned objections to our own opinions.
The left has often accused pro-family forces of being exclusionary of alternate family forms, or (as in this letter) accused the “radical right” of being the ones who shut down debate. But historically, the pro-family movement has shown remarkable inclusion and diversity, working across the aisle to promote marriage, or to better the lives of children, or to promote religious freedom for all. The Letter on Justice and Open Debate is rather a breath of fresh air—a bold move by people with wildly different views, willing to take a public stand together and say that discourse is being endangered. “We are already paying the price,” they say, “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.”
And yet, already, forces are arguing that even calling for free speech is a radical act, and partnering with people with whom one disagrees to impart a common message is a dangerous move.
Let’s hope the backlash to the letter makes clear how necessary its message is.