A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

From Harper’s Magazine:

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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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.

Link to the rest at Harper’s Magazine

5 thoughts on “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”

  1. So… hard Leftist wowsers in the arts, media, and academe are cracking down on any expression of dissent from the prevailing Left orthodoxy in those fields. Whose fault is that? Trump’s, of course!

    Repeat after Chesterton, kids:

    ‘As much as I ever did, more than I ever did, I believe in Liberalism. But there was a rosy time of innocence when I believed in Liberals.’

  2. I’m big on John Stuart Mill these days and I think a lot of weak leftist liberals like me are feeling the same. Not so favorable on Chesterton, although I did read his book Orthodoxy a few days ago. Mill points out that people always attempt to suppress what they think is patently wrong, but this only serves to suppress refutation of the wrong they wish to vanquish. Chesterton has his points, but I get tired of his repeated victories over straw men he constructs to blow down.

    • Chesterton seldom actually attacked a straw man. Most of the positions he attacked seem like straw men today, because those particular varieties of stupid have gone out of fashion and hardly anyone accepts them any longer. But that is true largely because of the success Chesterton (and his allies) enjoyed in exposing their stupidity.

      If you read widely in documents of the period, you will find that people really did seriously believe in nearly all of the nonsensical propositions that he so vigorously refuted. In short, he was not attacking straw men, but real men using straw for brains.

      In any case, I quoted Chesterton in this context because it is precisely a mass of self-styled liberals who are behaving most illiberally. You can believe in liberalism or you can believe in those people, but not both.

  3. Perhaps someone can tell us how Trump weakened “our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity?”

    And maybe what favored ideology? I haven’t figured that one out in four years.

  4. As far as I can tell, the disdain and invective is too common on both sides. On the Not-Left, some of that is best explained by people on the Autism Spectrum (quite common in the tech world). Not pleasant, but generally relatively harmless.

    Most of the tech forums I am acquainted with will step in if the attacks get too great. I’ve seldom known them not to, if actual threats are involved. However, questioning someone’s self-identification as being a gender not reflected in their DNA isn’t actually abuse. It may be somewhat rude, but it isn’t actionable. Nor, should it be, unless it is in a work setting where the parameters of acceptable behavior are well stated, AND enforced on ALL participants.

    Stating a personal belief in a way that doesn’t single out specific individuals is NOT an attack:
    – That the actual genders are male, female, and not exactly fitting either category (Those either in that category by natural happenstance, or those of individuals who have committed themselves to officially changing nature’s choice. Those individuals should realize that many will not actually think of them as that gender, although for the purposes of interacting with them may go along with the legal fiction that they actually ARE that gender.)
    – That marriage is, or should be, limited to man and woman. I also don’t think people should be hounded about their beliefs about divorce, marriages between those of different faiths, the suitability of drinking alcohol, smoking/vaping, how people other than oneself should dress in public, how to properly raise their OWN children, or other personal beliefs. Behavior may be mandated; your personal beliefs are between you and God/Goddess/whatever.
    – You are free to support BLM, AntiFa, or the Green Nude Deal. You may NOT force me to do so. I feel about that like I always felt about mandated giving to United Way – unacceptable. I finally found a solution I could live with that got my bosses off my back – I gave a ONE-time donation of $5 every year. I will NOT sign ‘Loyalty Statements’.

    I’m generally against Virtue Signaling. It’s a cheap way to feel good about yourself. “This House Condemns HATE! WE value ALL people.”
    No shit – who doesn’t? I’ll be impressed when the same people displaying those sentiments offer their OWN spare room to a recently released prisoner, a homeless person, or addict just out of rehab. Until then, it’s just talk.

    Those committing ACTUAL damage to others – getting them fired, attacking them on the street, burning down businesses – need to face the same penalties, no matter what their political/social positions.

    But, they don’t. “Special Rules for Special People”.

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