Vague hand-wringing on cancel culture from J.K. Rowling and friends

Is it time to back away from “cancel culture,” which calls for demonizing the voices of those whom others deem to be transgressors? This is an important question. Now 150 writers and other figures have published a letter addressing it in Harper’s — and done a terrible job of it.

Analyzing the Harper’s letter

The letter appears on Harper’s site with the signatures of Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, J.K. Rowling and many others. As I often do in this space, I’ll post the whole thing and analyze it a bit at a time.

I’ll use italics to indicate passive voice, which pervades this piece of writing. The italics do not appear in the original.

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

July 7, 2020

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.

Ask yourself this as you read this letter: Who is doing what? And what are we supposed to do? The only people in this first paragraph are “we” (three times), Donald Trump, and (presumably) right-wing demagogues. Along with that, we have mysteriously broad and vague sentence subjects including “our cultural institutions,” “powerful protests,” “wider calls for greater equality,” “this needed reckoning,” “the forces of illiberalism,” “resistance,” and “democratic inclusion.” This opener sets the tone: we are about to read about vague collections and tides of opinion sloshing against one another, rather than the actions of actual humans — except of course for the prime demon, Donald Trump.

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.

Clear and persuasive writers like Steven Pinker and J.K. Rowling signed this, but they sure didn’t write it. It’s a passive shriek of indignity that decries a societal shift rather than citing any specific action. It might as well just say “Bad shit is just sorta happening.”

The cancel culture is real (even thought it isn’t mentioned by name here). But we need to make a distinction. Individuals have every right to criticize other individuals — including, for example, those who have criticized J.K. Rowling for her continually repeated transphobic comments. Institutions and platforms, as well, can make choices. Universities can fire professors, Twitter and Facebook can kick people off their platforms, and publishers can decide what to publish. The problem with a sweeping set of generalizations like this (along with the vague set of passive events that the letter describes) is that any one of these institutions can say “well, that’s not us.” If you have a problem with what Twitter did, or Indiana University did, or Hachette did, then criticize them. Decrying cancel culture is like deploring rainstorms — it only calls attention to your whining.

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.

Here’s the thing: anyone can publish anything right now. Set up a blog and publish it. Put it on Amazon with Kindle Direct Publishing. Nobody’s stopping you.

If it’s controversial, you’ll have all the debate you can handle.

Who is silencing anyone? No one has a right to be published by Random House, a right to a Twitter account, or a right to use Facebook to publish lies about what day is Election day.

Institutions have always restricted what could get published. In the middle ages, the church banned printers from printing sacrilegious books. In 2018, Milo Yiannopoulos lost his publisher and platforms for being a racist bigot. I’m fine with that. There is no “right to have your views amplified.”

The ironic thing for me is that I agree things have gone too far. There’s not enough debate in universities, and political correctness can go too far. I don’t want people tearing down statues of George Washington.

If you want to make a case for this, I’d like to see it. But you’ll have to do a lot better than the pious pile of mush that Harper’s just published.

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  1. As is often the case, IMO, the power of the rhetoric is inversely proportional to the number of people willing to sign on. Outside of the Declaration of Independence and Scripture, mighty language rarely gets created by committees.
    I do share the widespread appreciation that so many prominent people representing so many colors on the political and ideological spectra have signed on to oppose attempted mob-based censorship and cancellation and in favor of robust and good-faith public debate, even if you rightly criticize the nebulosity and flaccidity of some of the language they use.

  2. Without bullshit, this is your worst article. You fail to even understand the original piece. Donald Trump (in this case) isn’t the problem. It’s the woke community that make Trump’s life easy by stifling conversation. If you can’t understand the article, I’m not sure how you can critique it.

      1. Well that’s a bullshit answer. You can’t hammer everyone else without critiquing your own work. That’s the classic, okay the man, not the ball response. Normally it would be you pointing that out.

        1. OK, here’s a more substantive answer.

          I think I understand the original piece, about, as you say, the “woke community” stifling conversation.

          I also make these clear points: there are no specifics in the text, and it is written in a vague and general way. It’s easy to critique a “community” with no faces. But because the piece is lacking specifics, it’s an ineffective critique. There’s a better critique to be made on this topic, but it would have to be more specific and not quite so toothless to be at all credible.

  3. I’m pleased you selected and shared this topic, Josh. You’re correct to demonstrate the essay’s vagueness and failure to hold offending parties to account. Might fear of retribution be the reason?

    For example, when they write, “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.”, they point to the “radical right” which, ironically, is more tolerant of conflicting points of view, while NOT naming the accused “radical left” which insists on conformity of expression.

    This fear of reprisal from the radical left was well expressed by a collection of stand-up comedians with whom I was fortunate to enjoy a 2019 forum. To a person they spoke of an unwillingness to appear before college audiences. University faculty and administrators, demonstrating an appalling lack of courage, failed to use such appearances as teachable moments. Actors and entertainers today make their livings “teasing out” the failings of the right; they dare not do otherwise AND won’t name names.

    Is it any wonder, writers are staring down the same beast?

    1. “Radical” is a muddy word that I’d love to get rid of. In practice, people use “radical” to express contempt for the contemptuous remarks of others with whom they disagree. The word indicates opposition and extremism at the same time. The Harper’s letter is full of not only passive voice, but also loaded terms when describing the atmosphere of disagreement. “It’s the audience that’s too sensitive and reactionary.”

      Cancel culture is a phenomenon because people are less isolated from criticism. Success at one time provided physical barriers between an artist and their audience. And publishers are trying to bring artists and audiences ever closer to increase loyalty. Therefore, the concept of in-jokes have to change because we’re all “in” to some degree and “out” in many other ways. And let’s face it, many of the strongly held assumptions and positions that didn’t seem controversial in the beforetime were always contemptible. It’s not radical to tell people to shut up with their nonsense. I find it refreshing and overdue. Harper’s could have tried that but they didn’t want an actual dialog.

      1. Kevin, you’re correct to point out that “radical” is, as Josh would say, a weasel word. The drafter of the essay uses it carelessly, though only in the politically correct way of describing those on the “right”.

        I take exception to your point, “It’s not radical to tell people to shut up with their nonsense.” Why would your opinion of nonsense trump another persons?

        What the left has engineered is the verbal equivalent of removing diving boards from our swimming pools and jungle gyms from our playgrounds. We’re being forced into a joyless world where the risk of possible offense denies most well intentioned discourse and humor from the public forum.

        1. I see what you’re saying about my generalization. My point is exactly that though. Once we collapse our thinking into sides we can only argue subjectively. Let’s try dropping the words “left” and “right” from discussion and see where that leads us.

  4. Josh,
    thank you for this presenting this article in a clear manner. I teach classes on Improvisation, and the concept of ‘Speaking in an active voice’ is the most difficult for most students to grasp. We as a culture have moved away from direct active voice speaking, either because we don’t want to offend or because we have be trained to see direct speakers as rude and pushy.

    With an active voice we can clearly state what we want or need from others, and in Improv, it allows a concrete point in the universe to anchor to, and to grow from.

    Throwing down some crazy mad props.

  5. Thank you for this post, Josh!!!!

    Personally, I disagree with your opinion that: “things have gone too far. There’s not enough debate in universities, and political correctness can go too far.” You invite others “to make a case for this.” I’d love to hear yours.

    Here’s mine in a nut shell:
    1) “Cancel culture” has always existed.
    2) There’s absolutely nothing wrong with boycotting brands which espouse ideas you disagree with.
    3) Over the last 25 years (or basically the age of widespread access to the Internet), brands have become more vocal about their values in order to connect with more like-minded people/consumers. Maybe this has contributed to a sense that “cancel culture” is somehow new or somehow worse than it was before.

    Personally, I am tired of hearing people complain about what they “feel” like they can or cannot say. Some people like to “push the envelope.” That’s fine. They continue to do so. Other people are not so comfortable doing that. That’s fine, too. But if you’re not comfortable making your opinion heard because you’re afraid of the backlash, then maybe that says something about your opinion.

    (Side note to Alan: the above paragraph applies to comedians, too. Regarding comedy and offending people, I have always thought the elephant in the room is that the funnyness of the joke is what determines whether or not people find it offensive. A joke can be offensive. A joke can be funny. It’s almost never both. Or at least, people don’t seem to mind the offensiveness of the joke, as long as they find the joke funny. This is a BIG problem for comedians who enjoy being offensive, because it makes it really hard for them to work on their material. I imagine that folks like Ellen DeGeneres and Jerry Seinfeld, who don’t typically do much offensive humor, don’t have as much of an issue. I do not have any productive ideas to help offensive comics. But I do enjoy their comedy. So I hope they continue to figure it out.)

    Again, I look forward to your take, Josh! Thanks!!!