A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

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"A Letter on Justice and Open Debate", also known as the Harper's Letter, is an open letter defending free speech published on the Harper's Magazine website on July 7, 2020, with 153 signatories,[1][2][3] criticizing what it called "illiberalism" spreading across society. While the letter denounced President Donald Trump as "a real threat to democracy", it argued that hostility to free speech was becoming widespread on the political left as well.[3]

Background[edit]

Writers Robert Worth, George Packer, David Greenberg, Mark Lilla, and Thomas Chatterton Williams drafted the letter.[2] Williams, described by The New York Times as having "spearheaded" the effort, was initially worried that its timing might cause it to be seen as a reaction to the George Floyd protests, which he considered a legitimate response to police brutality in the United States, but ultimately decided to publish it, citing various recent events such as the firing of David Shor. Shor was fired after public backlash from tweeting a paper by Omar Wasow, which argued nonviolent protest was more effective at shaping public opinion.[2]

In total, around 20 people contributed to the letter's contents.[2]

Summary[edit]

The letter describes right-wing illiberalism and then-US president Donald Trump as "a real threat to democracy", but argues that the political left engages in censorship of its own, denouncing "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." Per the letter, "Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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", "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", and "We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences." The letter concludes, "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."[4]

Signatories[edit]

The letter is signed by 152 people, mostly scholars and writers. They include academics from Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, and Columbia University.

Notable signatories include linguist Noam Chomsky; fiction writers J. K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Martin Amis, John Banville, Daniel Kehlmann, and Jeffrey Eugenides; world chess champion Garry Kasparov; political scientist Francis Fukuyama; feminist Gloria Steinem; cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker; journalists Fareed Zakaria, Malcolm Gladwell, Anne Applebaum, Ian Buruma, David Frum, and David Brooks; composer Wynton Marsalis; writer and former Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada Michael Ignatieff; political theorist Michael Walzer; economist Deirdre McCloskey; poet Roya Hakakian; surgeon Atul Gawande; music journalist Greil Marcus; and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Signatories generally did not know who had signed the letter until it was published.[3] At least one, Jennifer Finney Boylan, expressed qualms about some of the other signatories but affirmed her endorsement. Others who reaffirmed their support for the letter's contents, such as Katha Pollitt, said they disagreed with some of the signatories on other issues but did not mind signing the same statement.[5]

Full list[edit]

Reaction[edit]

The letter drew mixed reactions on social media.[3] In an opinion piece for CNN, John Avlon praised the letter, writing, "Demonizing principled disagreement does not advance liberal values—it fuels negative partisan narratives that Trump's reelection depends on. It can distract from actual purveyors of hate, and a sitting President who advances policies that are often racist or homophobic as well as anti-immigrant."[6] In another CNN opinion piece, Jeff Yang criticized the letter, writing, "it's hard not to see the letter as merely an elegantly written affirmation of elitism and privilege", and that the signatories "in the face of resultant backlash, dismissed rebuttals and positioned themselves as beleaguered victims of the current culture, turning their support for open debate and free expression into an example of stark hypocrisy or sly gaslighting."[7] Historian Nicole Hemmer criticized the letter's timing, saying that the letter primarily blamed cancel culture for disrupting free and open conversations at a moment during the George Floyd protests when it was becoming clearer what influence institutions had in controlling debate.[8]

Vox writer and signatory Matthew Yglesias faced pushback from transgender coworker Emily St. James, who criticized the letter for being signed by "several prominent anti-trans voices". This included Rowling, who attracted controversy for her comments on transgender issues.[2]

A response letter, "A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate", organized by the lecturer Arionne Nettles and signed by over 160 people in academia and media, critiqued the Harper's letter as a plea to end cancel culture by successful professionals with large platforms while excluding others who have been "cancelled for generations". The response named specific incidents in which Black people were silenced by their institutions.[9][10] Multiple signatories omitted either their names or institutional affiliations, citing fear of "professional retaliation".[11]

Kerri Greenidge later asked for her name to be removed from the Harper's letter, which was done.[3]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "JK Rowling joins 150 public figures warning over free speech". BBC News. July 8, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d e Schuessler, Jennifer; Harris, Elizabeth A. (July 7, 2020). "Artists and Writers Warn of an 'Intolerant Climate.' Reaction Is Swift". The New York Times. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  3. ^ a b c d e Chiu, Allyson (July 8, 2020). "Letter signed by J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky warning of stifled free speech draws mixed reviews". The Washington Post. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  4. ^ "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate". Harper's Magazine. July 7, 2020. Retrieved January 4, 2022.
  5. ^ Srikanth, Anagha (July 8, 2020). "Harper's Letter condemning 'cancel culture' draws debate on social media". The Hill. Retrieved July 9, 2020.
  6. ^ Avlon, John. "Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan and the Harper's letter: the case for open debate". CNN. Retrieved September 8, 2020.
  7. ^ Yang, Jeff. "The problem with 'the letter'". CNN. Retrieved September 8, 2020.
  8. ^ Hemmer, Nicole (July 16, 2020). "Why the Harper's Letter Got It Wrong". Public Seminar.
  9. ^ Schuessler, Jennifer (July 10, 2020). "An Open Letter on Free Expression Draws a Counterblast". The New York Times. Retrieved July 12, 2020.
  10. ^ Roberts, Mikenzie (July 13, 2020). "Harper's letter and response signed by Northwestern academics". The Daily Northwestern. Retrieved July 18, 2020.
  11. ^ "A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate". The Objective. July 10, 2020. Archived from the original on July 11, 2020. Retrieved July 12, 2020.

External links[edit]