Less than 24 hours after Harper’s Magazine published an open letter defending free speech and condemning Cancel Culture, two of the dozens upon dozens of academics, writers, and artists who originally signed the letter have distanced themselves from it, and one has apologized.
“I did not know who else had signed that letter,” said Jennifer Finney Boylan, an author and op-ed writer for The New York Times, who then suggested it was unclear that the letter was addressing Cancel Culture. “I 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,” said Boylan, referring to three left-wing public figures — Professor Noam Chomsky, feminist author Gloria Steinem, and “Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood — who also signed the open letter. “The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
The open letter, whose signers include author J.K. Rowling, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, and several NYT opinion columnists, among over a hundred others, casts the present time as a “moment of trial” for the nation’s cultural institutions.
“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,” the open letter reads. “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, 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.”
Rowling, one of the letter’s most high-profile signees, has since accused Boylan of caving to the mob, and insufficiently so at that: “You’re still following me, Jennifer. Be sure to publicly repent of your association with Goody Rowling before unfollowing and volunteer to operate the ducking stool next time, as penance.”
You’re still following me, Jennifer. Be sure to publicly repent of your association with Goody Rowling before unfollowing and volunteer to operate the ducking stool next time, as penance. https://t.co/SgjGDt1dcF
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) July 8, 2020
New Yorker staff writer Malcom Gladwell, another signee, also responded to Boylan, observing that he “signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with.”
“I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter,” he added.
I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter. https://t.co/ozFsAmXq9R
— Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) July 8, 2020
After denouncing President Donald Trump and “the forces of illiberalism,” the letter transitions to an ardent defense of the marketplace of ideas, and later highlights examples of “disproportionate punishments” for allegations of either real or perceived wrongdoings.
“We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters,” said the open letter, which later adds, “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. 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.”
The open letter concludes: “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.”
Historian Kerri Greenidge, whose name appeared on the original version of the letter, said on Twitter after the letter was published: “I do not endorse this @Harpers letter. I am in contact with Harper’s about a retraction.”
A spokesperson for Harper’s Magazine told The Daily Wire in an email that Greenidge’s name was included “because she read the letter and agreed to be included among the signers,” but that the magazine has since removed her name from the letter out of respect for her change of heart.
Greenidge did not respond to The Daily Wire’s request for comment.
After the Harper’s Magazine letter was published, Vox critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff sent a letter to the Vox editors expressing concern that a colleague’s “signature being on the letter makes me feel less safe” at the company.
VanDerWerff maintained that the colleague “should not be reprimanded or fired or even asked to submit an apology. Doing any of the above would only solidify, in his own mind, the idea that he is being martyred for his beliefs. But I do want to make clear that those beliefs cost him nothing.”
I sent a version of this to the editors of Vox. (I have redacted some bits that are internal to Vox and shouldn’t be aired publicly.) pic.twitter.com/splNNSMivd
— Emily VanDerWerff (@emilyvdw) July 7, 2020
The writer, Matthew Yglesias, declined to comment about the situation to The New York Times, but did express admiration for VanDerWerff’s professional work and still “respect[s] her enormously.”
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