Under Discussion: The Harper’s Letter

image of a pencil erasing a person from a diverse group of individuals

Earlier this month, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter addressing “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.” Signed by over a hundred journalists, artists, and academics, the letter identifies the culprit as “a vogue for public shaming” and “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.” It describes a kind of social media vigilantism whose “result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.” Cancel culture, these voices allege, has grown into a monstrous, amorphous, and unwieldy machinery capable of suppressing dissent, stifling academic freedom, and wrecking personal lives. Careers and reputations — representing decades of labor — are under constant threat for “perceived transgressions,” and the boundaries of acceptable speech have grown so narrow that if you fail to endorse the prescribed narrative you will see your share of social, professional, and even personal space disappear. This new intellectual environment, the signatories claim, is fundamentally at odds with our basic commitment to seek truth through collaborative discourse with others; it contradicts the immeasurable value we place on the free pursuit of knowledge and the free exchange of ideas.

Contrary to the letter’s framing of the issue, this isn’t simply a disagreement between those who believe in free speech and those who don’t. Even those who endorse the letter would agree that there are at least some opinions which should not be given a platform, there are some positions that should not be debated, there are at least some voices that do not deserve a hearing. Instead, the disagreement on which the signatories wish to comment concerns the criteria we use to determine who is genuinely deserving of cancellation and who should have the ultimate power to decide. Defining that space, marking those boundaries, charting those waters is the work that will occupy us for the next several days as our writers consider the many different moral challenges posed by The Letter.

-E. Tucker Sechrest, Editor

Benjamin Rossi – “Five Arguments Against the Harper’s Letter”

Evan Butts – “Weeds Grow in Light and Open Air, Too”

Rachel Robison-Greene – “Free Speech, Cancel Culture, and Compassion”

Meredith McFadden – “Platforms of Power and Privilege”

A.G. Holdier – “On Cancelling ‘Cancel Culture'”