Last Friday Bill Maher's Real Time show on HBO featured a discussion between Maher and two people who signed a letter calling for more tolerance of opposing views and the free exchange of information and ideas -- Thomas Chatterton Williams and Bari Weiss.
(There's a video of their Real Time segment on a Daily Beast story. It's well worth watching.)
Williams spearheaded the letter, which I've copied in below from a Harper's web page. To see who has signed it so far, click on the preceding link. It includes some familiar names: J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Fareed Zakaria, Malcolm Gladwell, Noam Chomsky.
The shorthand way of describing the letter is that it decries "cancel culture," which a New York Times opinion piece describes:
As The Times columnist Ross Douthat argues, cancellation is typically expressed as a collective attack on someone’s reputation and employment, which may include calls to deny people opportunities to speak before an audience (in person or online), be fired or put out of business, especially when such calls come from within one’s own professional community. While the Harper’s letter did not expressly use the phrase cancel culture, its emphasis on the “need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences” accords neatly with Mr. Douthat’s definition.
There are many ways of looking at the problem described in the letter, which naturally is the point of the letter. Freedom of expression is needed to investigate every problem in society, including the problem of not allowing freedom of expression.
My personal experience with this doesn't rise to the cancel culture level. I don't have a position that can be cancelled, being a retired blogger and author. What I've encountered has been more along the lines of You can't say that because you're an old white guy.
For example, my wife, Laurel, was one of the women who put on the first Salem Women's March in January 2017 after Trump was elected. So I had a special interest in a subsequent event that organizers were calling the Salem Womxn's March, which I thought was a bad idea.
OK. Some thought it was a good idea. But instead of explaining why they were right and I was wrong, on Facebook I got a lot of comments along the line of "An old white guy can't criticize how a woman's march is being planned." Which was totally off base, because obviously I was entitled to do just that -- express my opinion.
More recently, I wrote what I thought was a non-controversial blog post, "Violence should never be part of a Black Lives Matter protest." But since I'm not Black, numerous Facebook commenters said I wasn't able to talk about what should happen at the protests. Which also was ridiculous, because I'm perfectly capable of expressing my views on this subject.
Anyway, here's the Harper's letter, minus the names of those who have signed it. I added some extra paragraph breaks to make the letter easier to read.
A Letter on Justice and Open Debate
July 7, 2020
The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of the magazine’s October issue. We welcome responses at [email protected]
Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. 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. 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.
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: 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.
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.
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.