It’s hard to imagine that a few years ago a gauzy public statement in favor of free speech, boasting signatures from a host of left-wing luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, and Fareed Zakaria, would have caused much of a stir. But last week, when Harper’s Magazine released a letter warning, “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the backlash was swift and sharp.
Signed by more than 150 writers, professors, and intellectuals, the letter censured no trend and criticized no cause beyond “an intolerance of opposing views” that is leading to “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism.” Yet, many high-profile critics accused it of indirectly targeting everything from transgender ideology to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Do you each understand that the ‘different opinions’ of many writers on that list very literally and directly endangers the lives of trans people,” tweeted Vox culture writer Aja Romano, whose colleague Matthew Yglesias was among the signers. Transgender television critic Emily VanDerWerff echoed the sentiment, saying, “[Yglesias’] signature being on the letter makes me feel less safe at Vox.”
Within days, another group of journalists and academics issued a counterstatement claiming that the letter’s unstated aim was to solidify the cultural capital of elites (particularly “white, cisgender” elites) at influential institutions. What the Harper’s letter perceives as cancel culture is oppressed people banding together to dismantle entrenched power structures, the second statement claimed.
“In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people … can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern,” the critics wrote. Although a significant portion of the Harper’s signers were minorities, the critics went on to accuse the letter of being “a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry—one that’s starting to challenge institutional norms that have protected bigotry.”
Los Angeles Times culture critic Mary McNamara gave voice to perhaps the most popular rejoinder to the Harper’s letter—namely that it improperly favors free speech over another important liberty: free association. “The folks addressed by the letter—the supposed cancelers—have little or no institutional power,” she argued. “All they have is the influence of the collective.”
John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, said he agrees that freedom of association is as important as freedom of speech, but Stonestreet added that one right doesn’t cancel out the other.
“Our founders understood that those things shouldn’t be in opposition,” he said. “This isn’t an either-or or a zero-sum game. Associate all you want. Make the case all you want. But don’t steal public debate, particularly on things that offend you that haven’t been culturally decided.”
There is, however, one area where Stonestreet’s thinking aligns with the letter’s critics. He, too, believes that many of them have shown hypocrisy when it comes to welcoming open debate. As an example, Stonestreet pointed to Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale: “[She’s] the reason we have so many protesters now dressing as Puritan women. She would say that debating abortion is beyond the pale. She would never actually take seriously a conversation with a pro-lifer, and she’s proved that in how she has written.”
Yet, even while he believes a number of the Harper’s signers helped to create cancel culture, Stonestreet said he’s still happy to welcome Atwood and others like her to the cause of free expression.
“What they’re pointing out is still the right thing to point out even if they are being hypocritical,” he said. “I’m glad I still get to sign onto things and say things from Scripture that I’ve been hypocritical on.”
Several events since Harper’s released the letter seem to bolster its claim that fear of reprisal is squashing open debate. Once the backlash began, one endorser asked for her name to be removed. Another, author and New York Times’ opinion writer Jennifer Finney Boylan, immediately apologized for her involvement: “I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.”
The implied bad company likely was Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who has recently come under fire for defending biological women against the transgender movement.
Then, on Tuesday, Times’ opinion writer Bari Weiss, who frequently has faced the ire of her coworkers for her essays defending conservative and libertarian ideas, resigned. She cited a “new consensus … that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few” as her reason, adding, “Twitter has become [The New York Times’] ultimate editor.”