A reflection on the open letter in Harper’s
In an open letter announcing her resignation from the New York Times, Bari Weiss denounces the intolerant climate characterising the current public political discourse:
“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.”
In the view of more than 150 intellectuals—including J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, and David Brooks, all of whom have signed the Harper’s letter—progressives are now dominating social media and the news press to the point that free speech is being threatened.
In his last book, “White” (2018), Bret Easton Ellis took a very similar position. As a writer and public intellectual from a white upper-middle-class background, Ellis is the perfect representative of Generation X. His book denounces the toxicity of contemporary political correctness, speaking of it as a dictatorship that not only endangers alternative political views, but also threatens any degree of artistic freedom. Political correctness is defined by Ellis as an “omnipresent epidemic of victimization, an epidemic of moral superiority.” He sees this as ultimately contributing to the rise of the so-called “Generation Wuss” — a homogenous cluster of hyper-sensitive and pessimistic individuals, whose very existence has been strongly shaped by the democratization of the internet and the spread of social media.
For a member of Generation Z, two questions naturally arise for me: are these complaints coming from — usually but not exclusively — baby boomers who feel threatened? Or is the public discourse truly showing less tolerance towards different ideas due to a new form of progressive fascism (generally referred to as “cancel culture”)?
On the one hand, the signatories of the Harper’s open letter may have not yet understood how disagreement (at least in most cases) takes place on social media. As Lili Loofbourow explains in her tweet, “bad faith is the condition of the modern internet and shitposting is the lingua franca of the online world.” On the other hand, it is also likely that this group of intellectuals may have manipulated the situation in their favour through their controversial political positions.
Whilst Ellis openly criticizes the Left, the feminist movement, and the Black Lives Matter Movement, the Harper’s letter does not address any particular political movement. Yet, from a first reading it’s clear that the target is the discourse on the Left, which at the moment has been sustained by BLM and a renewed awareness of the forms that racism can take across different systems. In particular, we witness an emphasis on language that, through its reliance on discursive devices, has often been used to express racist and sexist ideologies (“I am not racist, but…”; I support gender equality, but…”).
This is not to say that either the vague political language favored by the signatories, or Ellis’ stance against the aesthetics of BLM, can be considered racist. That would be simplistic, and it would deny the complexity of their ideas and their morality. Yet, more attention should be placed on the use of a certain language, especially when the latter is used to criticize political actions of minority groups.
Despite the naivety (or perhaps the cunning) of these academics, their words ultimately seem to reflect their perceived threat to their established status quo. By ignoring their positionality within society, the signatories of the Harper’s letter, as with Ellis, feel entitled to comment on political actions carried out by groups that have been marginalised for centuries. In doing so, not only do they undermine the experience of others by shutting out their voices, but they also implicitly reinforce the dynamics of power that keep marginalised groups subject to the system. What is it then that these champions of free speech and tolerance are defending?
The signatories claim “our culture” and “our norms” in their open letter. Yet, in the defence of the latter they also inevitably exclude “another culture” and “other norms” that may represent alternative — perhaps more inclusive — ways of living.
In line with their uncertain morality, several of the signatories have strongly criticized the toppling of statues following the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. Wrongly, those actions have gone under the umbrella of “cancel culture.” Yet, the removal of statues, associated with Confederate myths and imperialist missions, has shed light on the lack of neutrality in the telling of past events. In this sense, it is actually more reasonable to argue that entering into the discussion the monumentalisation of imperialist personalities reinstates the purpose of historical narrations. On the one hand, by ending mythical narrations of the past. On the other hand, by motivating us to adopt postcolonial critical approaches to the history we have been taught — which has often been written with precise political interests in mind.
It seems to me that the vague ideological stance expressed in the Harper’s letter confuses freedom of thought with a self-entitled sense of authority (which derives from the academic prominence of those individuals). Nevertheless, their words and moral ambiguity combined with their apparent “fear” of public shaming (an inevitable consequence of posting political views on social media) seem to be more an attempt to grapple with a status quo that is finally being threatened by the rise of other newly-powerful voices.
I believe it is time to empathetically engage with the experience of minorities in a way that does not undermine their voices but lets them speak for themselves. In this sense, it becomes a matter of assessing the privilege of the same people who can claim the right to free speech whenever they want, vis-a-vis those who have been entitled to it only recently.
We need to unveil the power dynamics that have often directed our particular understanding of the past — and that inevitably continue to affect our present.