One hundred and fifty writers, academics, artists and activists, representing positions across the political spectrum, have signed an open letter denouncing the “restriction of free speech and debate.” The letter comes in response to calls for censorship of so-called hate speech and “cancel culture” in the aftermath of recent Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. and Europe.
Published Wednesday by Harper’s Magazine, the letter’s signees include U.S. intellectual Noam Chomsky, feminist Gloria Steinem, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov, musician Wynton Marsalas and authors Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Malcolm Gladwell and J.K. Rowling.
The signees say they applaud a recent “needed reckoning” on racial justice but oppose atempts to muzzle open debate. “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,” the letter says. “This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time,” the letter continues. “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 letter condemns the “hasty and disproportionate punishments” against editors, writers, journalists, professors, researchers and others who have covered “controversial” topics and occasionally make “clumsy mistakes.”
The letter criticizes President Donald Trump as well, saying that “the forces of illiberalism … have a powerful ally” in the president, “who represents a real threat to democracy.”
Following social media criticism, at least four of the original signees retracted their support from the letter. “I’m always amazed that people allow comments on Facebook and Twitter to change their opinion,” Gladwell, author of Talking to Strangers, said in response to the retractions. “Social media is a form of entertainment and should not be taken seriously beyond that point. Most smart people understand that it is not a forum for the serious discussion of ideas.”
Commenting on his support of the letter, Chomsky claimed that too many liberals have abandoned their roots. “Freedom of speech was once a cornerstone of leftist belief but today, unfortunately, many liberals want to play the role of censors and gatekeepers. They have forgotten that supporting free speech also means letting the other side have its say no matter how much we disagree or are offended by it.”
One-time speech writer for President George W. Bush, David Frum, known for coining the “axis of evil” phrase, agreed to a point with Chomsky. “What I respected years ago about my liberal friends was their willingness to hear me out,” he said. “The new gang of liberals are part of the limp-wristed “me too” mob who want to shame people and take away their jobs. How times have changed!”
Sources: BBC, Vox, The Guardian, others