“The free exchange of ideas is becoming more constricted”, writers and scholars say in a letter
Intellectuals warn that “the spread of censoriousness” is leading to an “intolerant climate”. Authors JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood are among the signatories.
NEW YORK · 09 JULY 2020 · 15:38 CET
More than 150 writers, academics and journalists have signed an open letter warning that the spread of “censoriousness” is leading to an “intolerant climate” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”.
Writers JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, linguist Noam Chomsky, and former chess world champion, Garry Kasparov are among the signatories of the Letter on Justice and Open Debate, published online by Harper's magazine.
The letter was spearheaded by the Harper’s columnist and contributing writer for US newspaper The New York Times, Thomas Chatterton Williams, and began taking shape about a month ago, as part of a long-running conversation about diversity, free expression and the limits of acceptable opinion with a small group of writers, The New York Times reported.
“Censoriousness is spreading more widely in our culture”
It begins acknowledging that “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”.
However, signatories decry that “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”.
“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”, the letter points out.
According to the authors of the letter, that translates into “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 are paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists”
“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”, they add.
Furthermore, “institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms”, the letter criticises .
“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”, signatories underline.
“Preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement”
They warn that “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 letter ends with the writers asserting that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away”.
“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” they conclude.
Reactions to the letter
The reaction to the letter on social media has been swift and full of criticism. At least two of those who signed the open letter have already backed away from it.
Historian Kerri Greenidge said on her twitter that she did not endorse the letter and asked for a retraction. Her name has since been taken off the letter. Meanwhile, writer Jennifer Finney Boylan, point out in Twitter that she “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 consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry”.
One of the main criticisms to the letter was that it was a list of people who are scared, showing they fear change, but Williams wrote in Twitter that “this is people who are concerned about an intolerant climate and believe justice and freedom are inextricably linked”.
“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter. It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing. We believe these are values that are widespread and shared, and we wanted the list to reflect that”, he told The New York Times.