That notorious letter and the free speech debate

So as some of you may have heard by now, Harper’s recently published a letter decrying “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 … it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought” Thus editors get fired for running the wrong op-ed, books are withdrawn “for alleged inauthenticity,” journalists are told not to write about certain topics and “whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result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.”

Among the signatories: Mark “identity politics is bad” Lilla, Bari “intellectual dark web” Weiss, antifeminist Cathy Young, David Brooks, JK “trans exclusionary” Rowling and Anne “stop persecuting Roman Polanski over raping a tween” Applebaum (Applebaum has also written stuff I agree with, I should note). But also a great many people I respect (I do respect Rowling as a writer, just not on politics): Dahlia Lithwick, Michelle Goldberg, Gloria Steinem, Gary Wills, and Margaret Atwood.

The immediate reaction from a lot of people was that it’s ridiculous for a bunch of successful writers with steady gigs who are obviously not being censored to complain about political correctness stifling them. But as TYG pointed out to me, they weren’t writing in response to their own condition (though it’s hard not to think Rowling’s responding to her online critics), they were raising a general hue and cry which is legit; if I can complain about police violence when I haven’t been beaten, they can presumably oppose censorship.

That said, it’s a little hard to tell if they’ve got a case when they don’t get down to cases. It’s like arguing political correctness is killing comedy: without specifics it’s impossible to tell if the issue is a hypersensitive audience or an offensive (and not in a good way) comedian. I’ve seen lots of people express outrage about various actors, entertainers and authors online and suggest they be cancelled, but “somebody said it online” is not the same as “an angry mob intimidated the employer into firing this innocent person!”

While I agree authenticity is a dubious standard, “inauthenticity” isn’t a precise term; it could easily mean a nonfiction book with major errors (as discussed here) or who knows what. Another reference in the letter appears to mean this case, (a teacher who quoted James Baldwin’s use of the n-word in class got into trouble) which seems unfair and wrong; however literary groups are sticking up for the accused (so it’s not as if she’s become a non-person). The editorial firing is presumably James Bennett of the NYT due to his Tom Cotton column (which might explain so many Times reporters and columnists signing). The vagueness probably helped get people to sign, as they can interpret it as they choose, but it also prompted others not to sign.

As Roy Edroso says, the signatories don’t seem to be making an issue of people much less prominent than Bennett who got fired or disciplined for saying things their bosses objected to or where the pushback wasn’t an example of left-wing PC. Which doesn’t mean they wouldn’t support them, but is their issue PC or employers’ freedom to slap down workers for anything they say off the job?

Truthfully, I don’t think I can be objective about the letter because I tend to react to the signatories I distrust more than the ones I respect (Brooks. for example, is now complaining that brilliant conservatives aren’t getting columnist gigs because Political Correctness). And because it is vague, and because the cases — to the extent I can guess which ones they are — are a mixed bag. I think Bennett made a very wrong call on Cotton and at some point firing is appropriate for bad calls. I don’t know if it was the right move here, but I’m not sure it wasn’t, either (do I know how to take a daring stand? Yep). The teacher, on the other hand, seems to have done nothing wrong. I agree there’s a boundary between “pushing back against offensive/misogynist/racist speech” and “ruining people’s lives for relatively trivial offenses” but I think the latter is far from a tidal wave sweeping over our discourse.

I do believe in free speech but given the vague arguments and the general history of anti-PC bullshit arguments (here and here, for instance) the letter leaves me unconvinced.

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