This week, an open letter in Harper’s Magazine with more than 150 high-profile signatories took aim at creeping ideological conformity, the erosion of open debate and the impulse to “dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” You may not be surprised to find that it was met by, well, blinding moral certainty.
The letter, which was signed by prominent journalists, academics, authors and activists, made mostly mundane observations about public shaming and society’s intolerance for robust debate. But what was striking was the diversity of its signatories. They seemed to span the full range of the political, demographic and ideological spectrum, from libertarian Kmele Foster to left-wing activist Noam Chomsky to conservative David Frum. Despite their opposing views, they all agreed on one thing: We need to find a way to constructively disagree.
And then the letter was posted online, where critics were quick to try to dismember the effort.
Some pointed out that many of the signatories have been complicit in past “cancel culture” episodes, which supposedly would invalidate the integrity of the message itself. Ironically, this sort of ad hominem attack is the precise type of intellectual laziness the letter condemns.
One signatory, author Jennifer Boylan, actually apologized for her endorsement after seeing the other names on the page, as if one person can invalidate an entire message. “I did not know who else had signed that letter,” she said in a tweet. “The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.” Ms. Boylan did not identify the fellow signatory who provoked her about-face, but it is reasonable to infer it was author J.K. Rowling, who has been accused of espousing hateful anti-trans ideology. Ms. Boylan, a trans woman, is now facing “cancellation” herself.
It bodes poorly for efforts to restore the principles of fair and open dialogue when a rather innocuous call for improved discourse is swallowed by the impulses it decries. To be sure, it’s no skin off the back of the well-established, well-connected, well-off signatories of the Harper’s letter. But that’s the sinister thing about normalizing a culture where a wrong opinion or a past indiscretion can tarnish a person irremediably: Those who tend to feel its weight most profoundly are those who don’t have a literary empire to fall back on.
Collectively, we suffer for the opinions and ideas that are not expressed out of fear of backlash or retribution. No doubt there are political analysts, for example, who aren’t sharing research or information relevant to current events because they saw what happened to data analyst David Shor, who was fired from his job at a consulting firm in June shortly after he tweeted out a study about how violent and non-violent civil-rights protests affected vote shares in surrounding counties in 1968. His tweet was seen as tone-deaf and offensive in light of the George Floyd protests.
This touches other areas as well. For years, Colin Kaepernick’s stagnant NFL career was a lesson on the dangers of speaking out on police brutality. Right now, research on gender dysphoria is stifled out of concern for backlash for straying from accepted orthodoxy. And many journalists, myself included, often keep mum on certain issues – even those that run afoul of the basic principles of journalism – out of fear of being taken out of context or tarnished by association.
For example, when CBC News suspended host Wendy Mesley back in June for using “careless” language, it ran an 800-word article that didn’t tell readers what she said to merit the suspension; it did, however, include commentary criticizing her for the undisclosed incident. (Disclosure: I worked with Ms. Mesley a handful of times when I was employed by CBC.) Granted, it’s hard for any news organization to cover their own scandal, but the piece clearly failed to meet the acceptable standards of balanced, responsible journalism.
Indeed, the coverage should have been called out weeks ago, but I (and I will assume others) didn’t want to be seen as somehow endorsing what Ms. Mesley said (she used the n-word, which neither I nor she will defend), or as being tone-deaf for focusing on something as seemingly trivial as journalistic conventions when the issue of anti-Black racism is, of course, far more important. But surely talking about fair reporting can coexist with necessary coverage about systemic discrimination.
The problem with the current atmosphere is that it swallows up nuance and spits out retribution. As a result, many writers, athletes, journalists and academics just keep their ideas to themselves, rather than risk the consequences of entering the fray. That is not constructive, nor healthy, to the normal functioning of society. But when even a benign letter advocating the free exchange of ideas becomes engulfed in the sort of online controversy it’s trying to offset, it’s no wonder that many individuals decide it’s probably better just to keep their mouths shut.
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