From Atwood to Chomsky, Intellectuals Come Out Against Cancel Culture

Co-organizer of letter criticizing current vogue for ‘public shaming and ostracism’ of those with opposing views says diversity of people involved is its strength

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Clockwise from top left: J.K. Rowling, Wynton Marsalis, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Garry Kasparov and Salman Rushdie.
Clockwise from top left: J.K. Rowling, Wynton Marsalis, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Garry Kasparov and Salman Rushdie.Credit: AP/Reuters
David Green
David B. Green

Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Garry Kasparov, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Wynton Marsalis are just a handful of over 150 intellectuals and cultural figures who signed an open “Letter on Justice and Debate,” published Tuesday on the Harper’s Magazine website.

Perhaps under normal times, such a letter wouldn’t be noteworthy. Then again, in normal times, few would likely see the need for such a letter, which bemoans the fact that the current wave of social protest in the United States is being accompanied by “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 concludes: “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.”

The letter follows some very high-profile incidents in recent months. For example, Rowling, author of the “Harry Potter” novels, was roundly pilloried on Twitter last month after she wrote comments about transgender women that some – including the stars of the film adaptations of her books – considered disparaging.

Another signatory, psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, was denounced recently by more than 500 colleagues in the Linguistic Society of America, who in a letter to the organization’s membership called for his removal from its “list of distinguished fellows.”

Screengrab of the letter on the Harper's Magazine website, July 7, 2020. Credit: Screenshot from Harper's Magazine

They explained that they were not concerned with Pinker’s “academic contributions as a linguist, psychologist and cognitive scientist,” but rather with the fact that he is “a public figure [with] a pattern of drowning out the voices of people suffering from racist and sexist violence.” Their list of incriminating examples included Pinker’s use in tweets of the terms “urban crime” and “urban violence,” which the LSA letter characterized as “dogwhistles.” They accused him of using language “that signals covert and, crucially, deniable support of views that essentialize Black people as lesser-than, and, often, as criminals.”

Others who signed the Harper’s letter include choreographer Bill T. Jones, feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, journalist Anne Appelbaum, and scholars Francis Fukuyama, Susannah Heschel and Todd Gitlin.

The letter’s text doesn’t refer to any specific incidents or names, or advocate on behalf of any individual; instead, it bemoans the fact that, in the current atmosphere, “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.”

Rather than censoring or banning, it argues that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

Writer Thomas Chatterton Williams was one of the organizers of the letter. A contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine, and author of two memoirs that deal in part with his being the son of a Black father and white mother, Williams told Haaretz there were many people who were not willing to put their names to the statement.

One of them, whom he identified only as “a prominent Black academic,” told Williams and his peers that “we were going to look very bad, when people look back on this moment, and we were standing in the way.” He also compared the letter-writers to “the white clergy who urged Dr. [Martin Luther] King to be patient and wait – and then he wrote ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail.’”

Williams said he rejected the characterization of the signatories as “a bunch of old clergymen urging moderation to Blacks. This is Black people, this is trans people, Muslims, agnostics, Jews, this is old, young, left, right. So I think that the diversity of the list is part of its strength.”

He said too that there were “many people” invited to sign the letter “who said they couldn’t agree more ... but they said that at this stage in their careers, they couldn’t take such a risk, and they genuinely fear retribution.”

Williams also noted that a tendency of “people to get caught up on the language and symbols instead of the substance” was another motivating factor.

“That’s why we try to emphasize that people who don’t have power are not helped – and are probably actually actively harmed – when the narrowing of discourse, and the seething at small linguistic missteps, get all of the attention,” he said. “That doesn’t actually help anybody who is being beaten in the streets because they were born Black.”

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