That Harper's letter on free speech annotated

The very bad, not good, actually awful letter...

A huge list of powerful writers has signed an open letter to Harper’s about free speech. Here is my response as one, not powerful writer.

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial.

Okay. Explain why.

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, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But 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.

They don’t name what this “new set of moral attitudes” is because then the signatories would be required to actually explain, point by point, what is wrong with those attitudes. This all reads like people who don’t like getting shouted at when other people, with smaller platforms, do not appreciate the things they write or broadcast.

As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump…

1) ‘Illiberalism’ needs defining. And many of the people that this letter is glomming together with Donald Trump aren’t liberals, but leftists, Marxists, and even Communists. There is a tendency among so-called ‘moderates’ to chuck anyone who they don’t consider to be ‘liberal’ into one bucket and hit that bucket with hammers.

…who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

It seems to me that the key vector of intolerance is newspaper columnists and established writers honking on that they are censored, usually in a national newspaper or august magazine like Harper’s.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.

You can’t just say this. Prove it. You can’t, because it’s not true.

While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: 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 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. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. 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.

Everything in this long list of examples without specific examples is assertion rather than proof. This is what they feel is happening rather than what is actually happening. We do not live in an age of censorship. We live in an age of abundant speech. It’s simply that people now get challenged more frequently and loudly when they say awful things. This is a cry by people with the platform and money to say awful things, a wail that they might have to answer for things they say rather than simply blast them into the world before reviewing the devastation.

Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. 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.

You say ‘reprisal’, I say ‘criticism’, let’s call the whole thing off.


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 way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers 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.

Good faith? Nothing in this letter is in good faith.