Harper's Magazine: A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

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      On July 7, the following letter was posted on the Harper's Magazine website, generating discussion in many countries about the free exchange of information. It will appear in the magazine's "Letters" section in the October issue, and the publication is encouraging responses at letters@harpers.org.

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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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

      Elliot Ackerman
      Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
      Martin Amis
      Anne Applebaum
      Marie Arana, author
      Margaret Atwood
      John Banville
      Mia Bay, historian
      Louis Begley, writer
      Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
      Paul Berman, writer
      Sheri Berman, Barnard College
      Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
      Neil Blair, agent
      David W. Blight, Yale University
      Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
      David Bromwich
      David Brooks, columnist
      Ian Buruma, Bard College
      Lea Carpenter
      Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
      Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
      Roger Cohen, writer
      Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
      Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
      Kamel Daoud
      Meghan Daum, writer
      Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
      Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
      Dexter Filkins
      Federico Finchelstein, The New School
      Caitlin Flanagan
      Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
      Kmele Foster
      David Frum, journalist
      Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
      Atul Gawande, Harvard University
      Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
      Kim Ghattas
      Malcolm Gladwell
      Michelle Goldberg, columnist
      Rebecca Goldstein, writer
      Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
      David Greenberg, Rutgers University
      Linda Greenhouse
      Rinne B. Groff, playwright
      Sarah Haider, activist
      Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
      Roya Hakakian, writer
      Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
      Jeet Heer, The Nation
      Katie Herzog, podcast host
      Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
      Adam Hochschild, author
      Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
      Eva Hoffman, writer
      Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
      Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
      Michael Ignatieff
      Zaid Jilani, journalist
      Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
      Wendy Kaminer, writer
      Matthew Karp, Princeton University
      Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
      Daniel Kehlmann, writer
      Randall Kennedy
      Khaled Khalifa, writer
      Parag Khanna, author
      Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
      Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
      Enrique Krauze, historian
      Anthony Kronman, Yale University
      Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
      Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
      Mark Lilla, Columbia University
      Susie Linfield, New York University
      Damon Linker, writer
      Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
      Steven Lukes, New York University
      John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
      Susan Madrak, writer
      Phoebe Maltz Bovy
      , writer
      Greil Marcus
      Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
      Kati Marton, author
      Debra Mashek, scholar
      Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
      John McWhorter, Columbia University
      Uday Mehta, City University of New York
      Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
      Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
      Samuel Moyn, Yale University
      Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
      Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
      Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
      Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
      Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
      George Packer
      Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
      Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
      Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
      Steven Pinker, Harvard University
      Letty Cottin Pogrebin
      Katha Pollitt
      , writer
      Claire Bond Potter, The New School
      Taufiq Rahim, New America Foundation
      Zia Haider Rahman, writer
      Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
      Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
      Neil Roberts, political theorist
      Melvin Rogers, Brown University
      Kat Rosenfield, writer
      Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
      J.K. Rowling
      Salman Rushdie, New York University
      Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
      Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
      Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
      Jennifer Senior, columnist
      Judith Shulevitz, writer
      Jesse Singal, journalist
      Anne-Marie Slaughter
      Andrew Solomon, writer
      Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
      Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
      Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
      Wendell Steavenson, writer
      Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
      Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
      Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
      Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
      Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
      Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
      Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
      Chloe Valdary
      Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College
      Helen Vendler, Harvard University
      Judy B. Walzer
      Michael Walzer
      Eric K. Washington, historian
      Caroline Weber, historian
      Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
      Bari Weiss
      Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
      Garry Wills
      Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
      Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
      Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
      Matthew Yglesias
      Emily Yoffe, journalist
      Cathy Young, journalist
      Fareed Zakaria

      (Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.)